Gerrymandering: Politics vs. the public good

If you served in the Legislature and had to choose between what is good for the state of New Hampshire and what is good for your party, what would you do? Our legislators faced this test last year. Most of them failed.

The issue was gerrymandering – the drawing of voting districts in a way that benefits one party over another.

The guiding principle of democracy is majority rule. It is essential that we have rules that protect the right to vote, and ensure an accurate vote count that reflects the will of the people.

The goal of gerrymandering is to impede the will of the people by making it possible for the party with a minority of the votes to get a majority of the legislative seats. It is a way to rig elections.

The technique is quite simple. You identify towns and city wards that are most likely to vote against your party. You group together as many of those places as possible, creating districts your party is sure to lose. If you pack enough unfavorable voters into a few districts, it means the remaining districts are more likely to vote for your party.

Since the earliest days of our country, politicians have gerrymandered. The term originated in 1812 in Massachusetts, when Gov. Elbridge Gerry of the Democratic-Republican Party approved a legislative map that favored his party over the Federalist Party. One district north of Boston was thought to resemble a mythological salamander, and the word “Gerrymander” became part of our political lexicon.

Today, computers make the process of gerrymandering more precise – and more dangerous to democracy. It’s now routine for the party in power at the time of redistricting to hire a data-crunching firm to draw district lines for maximum advantage.

Here in New Hampshire, the Republicans were pleased with the results from their redistricting of the state Senate after the 2010 census. It was traditional for Portsmouth and Durham to be in different state Senate districts, and both districts were usually held by Democrats. The 2012 map put both Portsmouth and Durham in District 21. It had the desired effect. District 21 is overwhelming Democratic. The neighboring districts (23 and 24) have elected Republican state senators.

Similarly, District 10 (Keene area) and District 5 (Upper Valley) were drawn to be sure-wins for Democrats-thus making the neighboring districts more likely to vote Republican.

In 2012, the Democratic candidates for State Senate received 51 percent of the vote statewide, but Republicans won 14 seats, while the Democrats won just 10.

It’s the same story in the Executive Council. District 2 was drawn to combine the Democratic strongholds of Durham, Concord, and Keene. One result is a district that is about 130 miles long – some feat in a state only 90 miles wide at the widest – with a disproportionate number of Democratic voters. The other result is that Republicans will likely always have three seats on the Executive Council – at least until the next redistricting.

There are alternatives. Last year, House Bill 320 was a proposal that districts be drawn using a mathematical optimization process. Districts would be drawn with the shortest possible perimeter, to keep together communities of interest, and to avoid elongated districts that put together towns that are far from each other. The bill would have forbidden the drawing of district lines using party affiliation of voters, addresses of incumbent legislators, previous election results, or demographic data (other than the actual census counts). Predictably, the bill failed on a nearly party-line vote. All but three Republicans voted to kill the bill, while all but four Democrats voted in support.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 107 called for the creation of a bi-partisan redistricting commission that would draw district boundaries using the same criteria at HB 320. It ran into the same partisan buzz saw: All 14 Republicans voted “no,” while all nine Democrats voted “yes.”

Our legislators take an oath to “support the constitution.” That constitution is based on the democratic principle of majority rule. When legislators vote for gerrymandered districts – and when they vote against bills that would prohibit gerrymandering – they are violating their oath of office.

If the shoe were on the other foot – if Democrats were benefitting from partisan, gerrymandered districts – would Republicans suddenly become fans of the use of non-partisan redistricting criteria, and would Democrats suddenly favor the status quo? If the Democrats regain the majority in the November, we may find out.

Mark Fernald is a former State Senator and was the 2002 Democratic nominee for Governor. He can be reached at mark@markfernald.com.