Opinion: Rep. Spec Bowers on House redistricting plan

By Spec Bowers

Every ten years the legislature is required to redraw districts for many elected officials from county commissioners up to U.S. Congressmen. Most difficult by far was redistricting for State Representatives. The difficulty was due partly to ever-increasing restrictions imposed by federal courts interpreting the U.S. Constitutions, but mostly due to the 2006 amendment to the New Hampshire Constitution. It was a good amendment but it created problems never before faced.

The biggest change is that we now have “floterial” districts. Perhaps the best way to explain floterials is by example. Suppose there are two neighboring towns each with population of 5,000 people, entitling each town to 1 1/2 representatives.

In every redistricting up until now, the only way to handle two such towns would be to combine them into a single district electing three representatives. Today, we would make each town a district with one rep, then we would create a floterial district on top of the two “base” districts. So each town would vote for one rep from that town, then the two of them together would vote for a third rep. The benefit of floterials is that they allow us to have smaller districts with representatives closer to the people who elect them.

Compared to the 2002 districts we have been using for the last ten years, the new plan has twice as many districts, meaning that each district on average is half the size of the old districts, and the plan has triple the number of single-town districts, meaning that representatives are much more likely to live in the town (or ward) that elected them.

Some people, including the Governor, object that the plan is not perfect – it does not meet all the requirements of the N.H. Constitution. But the fact is that geography, populations, arithmetic, and legal rules made it impossible to achieve perfection. We had to satisfy five legal rules:

1) One man one vote – every district had to be within plus or minus 5% from the ideal population. Federal courts, including the Supreme Court have forced this restriction. If we do not obey this restriction it is virtually certain that a court would rule the whole plan unconstitutional.

2) When combining towns, they must be contiguous. (N.H. Const. Art. 11)

3) We cannot “landlock” a small town such that it would be impossible to combine it. (Art. 11)

4) Districts cannot cross county lines. This is not prohibited by the constitutions but can you imagine the controversy that would be caused if we did cross county lines?

5) Large enough towns get their own districts. (Art. 11)

Those rules are listed in priority order. We cannot obey rule 5 if that would mean we violated a higher priority rule. For example, many towns did not get their own districts because that would violate rule 3. In Merrimack county, the towns of Bow, Hooksett, and Hopkinton all are large enough to get their own districts. But if we did that, then Dunbarton would be landlocked, which would be unconstitutional.

Similarly, the towns of Loudon, Boscawen, and Northfield deserve their own districts, but that would landlock Canterbury. Of the 62 towns that did not get the district they deserved, many are because that would landlock a small town. In other cases we were not able to make those towns their own district without violating rule 1.

So how does the redistricting plan affect Sunapee?

Like many towns, and all towns in Sullivan county, Sunapee will now elect a state representative in two separate districts. District 2 is the towns of Sunapee and Croydon; District 9 is a floterial on eight towns: Sunapee, Newport, Croydon, Unity, Springfield, Grantham, Cornish, and Plainfield. On our ballots we have always had two separate districts for electing county commissioners. Now we will have two separate districts for electing a state representative.

Statewide we have triple the number of single-town districts. Sadly, Sunapee is one of the very few exceptions to this fact. Sunapee was a single-town district, now it is combined with the much smaller Croydon. This was dictated by the geography and populations of Sullivan county. Sunapee, Newport, and Claremont all deserve to have their own districts. But if we gave all three their own districts, the five northern towns would violate the one man one vote rule, as also would the seven southern towns.

We cannot combine northern towns with southern towns due to rule 2: they are not contiguous because Sunapee, Newport, and Claremont separate them. In order to satisfy rules 1-4, it was not possible to completely satisfy rule 5 for Sunapee and Newport. Our plan minimally violates rule 5 by adding a small town to Sunapee and to Newport. Sunapee still dominates its district, and Newport dominates its district. I myself developed two different plans for Sullivan county but I had to admit that the adopted plan came closer to the Constitutional ideal than my plans.

We worked literally months on the redistricting plan. One person would find an improvement, then another person would top that, then the first person would find yet another improvement. Nobody has been able to improve on the plan for Sullivan county or for most of the other counties. The sole exception is a part of Hillsborough county. Some of us think that one plan is better, some think a different plan is better.

The rascally lawyers tell us that whatever plan we develop will be subject to a possible lawsuit, but that our final plan is the one that best satisfies all the legal rules we faced.

I will vote to override the Governor’s veto so that this plan can become law.

Spec Bowers, the state representative for Sunapee, is a Republican from Georges Mills.  He sits on the House Special Committee on Redistricting.

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