How a Few Lines on a Map Hold So Much Power in N.H. Politics

Apr 20, 2016

1875 Map of the Senatorial District Gerrymander in New Hampshire made by F. Michelin of New York City. The Senate districts are color coded on the map.
Credit Digitization supported by the Cogswell Benevolent Trust. / Image obtained via the New Hampshire Historical Society

Here’s a confusing reality about New Hampshire politics today:

Democrats are having success like never before, scoring wins that would have been unimaginable just two decades ago.

But despite that shift, there’s one place where Republicans still have a leg up on Election Day: the state Legislature.

And there’s a reason for this, an invisible force that drives everything in politics, that you probably won’t hear mentioned on the campaign trail: redistricting. 

NHPR’s State of Democracy unit looks at how a few lines on a map can hold such power.

Related story: As N.H. Shifts to a Swing State, Why Do Legislative Lines Still Favor Republicans?

When he was a kid, politics shaped Jay Flanders life: His dad was state treasurer, so after school was spent running around the halls of State House.

As an adult, Flanders is a guy who actually shapes politics. He’s not the guy that likes to be out front—he prefers to do his business back in the proverbial smoke filled room.

Sara Plourde/NHPR

Flanders was Senate chief of staff for the Republican majority, he’s consulted on campaigns, and he’s agreed to meet me at a coffee shop in Concord to talk about a part of politics that, chances are, doesn’t come up at your dinner table: the intricate, obscure process of political redistricting, or, the story of how Republicans gerrymandered New Hampshire’s Senate map.

It’s okay—we can say it: gerrymandering. Flanders isn't afraid to say the word either.

"Look, 'gerrymandering' may be distasteful - in some cases it is hardcore, bare knuckle politics," he says. "But everyone agreed the map was going to change."

A pivotal moment for the GOP

So let’s set the scene. It's 2010. Tea Party outrage helps Republicans sweep the New Hampshire State House. It's one of the starkest political flips any state makes. Republicans come out of that with the biggest State House majority they’ve had in a generation.

That was also the year of the Census, when a state gets new numbers about who and how many people it has, and redraws its political map to reflect those shifts. And in New Hampshire, its the party in power that holds the pen.

Translation: a big political opportunity for the new Republican majority. They get to draw fresh maps of the election districts for the House, the Senate, and the Executive Council -- the Senate map was Flanders’ job.

This is not a moment that attracts protests on the State House lawn, but this may be the most important thing Republicans get to do this session: drawing the political map that’ll be in play for the next decade.

So Flanders and his team get to work, following the few rules the New Hampshire constitution lays out for Senate district lines: Cut the state into 24 pieces—one district for every Senate seat—each with roughly the same number of people in it, without breaking up any towns.

"We actually blew up a map of the state of New Hampshire 3 by 5 feet," Flanders recalls. "And it had the population of each town printed on it."

Flanders says it wasn’t simple getting to a map that met the wants and needs of 24 elected senators, plus other members of the Republican party, outside operatives. He had to factor in some horse trading.

"There were probably 50 to 60 iterations of a map, that I was aware of," Flanders says. "You didn’t want conflict. Somebody saying, 'I need this town' and the other guy saying, 'I need this town,' and if they did? They had to figure it out behind the scenes."

But the Republicans got their map, and enough votes to pass it.

And, as Flanders says: "It was signed into law and everybody went on with their life."

Measuring "wasted" votes

The next election was in 2012, and even though Democratic Senate candidates actually won more votes, Republicans held on to their majority. In other words, the people of New Hampshire leaned one way, but the Senate went the other.

So, how did that happen? Gerrymandering. Republicans drew a map to give their party the advantage, and -- it's important to note -- they followed the rules.

Because here’s the thing with gerrymandering: even though the United States Supreme Court says its unconstitutional, and nearly every state has gone to court over it, it turns out it's really hard to prove. 

Nicholas Stephanopolous might have come up with a solution. He’s a lawyer on a lot of gerrymandering cases and a redistricting expert at the University of Chicago. He’s got this formula to boil partisan gerrymandering down to one number, something he calls the "efficiency gap."

"That single number tells us how severe the gerrymander is, and who's benefited and who's hurt by it," Stephanopoulos says.

This chart details the "efficiency gap" in New Hampshire's state Senate elections over the past 20 years. A positive efficiency gap indicates an election map that favors Republicans -- and the bigger the number, the bigger that advantage. Based on this measure, in 8 of the past 11 elections, Republicans have enjoyed a disproportionate number of Senate seats compared to actual vote tallies. In two years, the math swung in the Democrats' direction, and one year was a wash for both parties.

Stephanopolous’ formula relies on something he calls wasted votes. These are votes that had no impact on the outcome of an election, like votes for a winning candidate in a landslide election, or votes for a losing candidate in a narrow election.

New Hampshire Public Radio took this formula and applied it to over 30 years of state Senate elections. What we found was that in most contests since at least the mid 1990s, Republicans have been gaining far more than their fair share of representation.

Stephanopolous says this means the voices of voters are getting more and more muffled.

"And this means there is a weaker connected than ever before in modern U.S. history between what voters want and what voters are getting in terms of legislative representation, and that's a really urgent problem for a democracy," he says.

This is what gerrymandering does: it sets up a kind of alternate political reality.

Take New Hampshire. We’ve gone from being solidly Republican to a true swing state. But the last few rounds of political maps pretty much ignore that: You see fewer and fewer swing districts.

One of those last surviving purple patches is Senate District 12, along the states southern border. Republicans and Democrats have traded wins there in the last four elections. But over that time, it’s also undergone some major surgery.

"And if you look at how it was redistricted, District 12 was redistricted to have a definite Republican advantage," says Democrat Peg Gilmour, who held the District 12 seat twice—once before and once after the new map.

The district used to be a big chunk of the city of Nashua, which typically leans Democrat, plus a few neighboring Republican-leaning towns. But after 2010, it was redrawn as this suburban, stretched out district— taking out most of Nashua and attaching the town of Rindge, which is way over in another county.

And while Gilmour didn’t like what the Republicans made out of the political map, she says given the chance, her party would do the same thing.

"If it had been Democrats and they had done the same thing it would be just as onerous," she says. "We need really to take the redistricting out of the political process, out of the party process."

A new approach: More independence?

Gilmour’s not the only one suggesting this solution, handing over the job of drawing the new political map to an independent group of people who don’t have any interest in getting elected. Six other states do it this way, and more are considering it.

A few months ago, I met attorney Paul Twomey in the halls of the legislative office building. He’d just testified about why New Hampshire should be the next state and was feeling pretty hopeful.

"I wouldn't bet my actual farm on it, I wouldn't bet any of my children on it," he said at the time.

Twomey was Democratic legal counsel in the State House, but he’s been working pro bono on reforming redistricting for years, trying to convince legislators that it's an issue both parties should be worried about.

"I think everybody in there understands that people are disenchanted with what their government is doing and this is one of the problems, that we have election results that don’t follow the votes," Twomey said. "That the majority of the people will vote for one party and the other party has control of everything—that really isn’t a democracy."

But the bill Twomey was pushing for that day, it didn’t go anywhere.

Because here’s maybe the trickiest part of changing redistricting: When other states managed to get it out of the hands of politicians, voters and courts led the way.

But here in New Hampshire, our system is set up so that it’s the legislators—the ones who most stand to gain from gerrymandering—who have to make that change. They have to willingly give up power.

It's hard to expect they will do that. Even with the next round of redistricting still more than four years away. Who knows who’ll draw that map.