New Hampshire House approves GOP-backed redistricting plan

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The New Hampshire House on Wednesday approved a redistricting plan that would tilt the state’s 1st Congressional District toward Republicans while solidifying the Democrats’ advantage in the 2nd District.

The vote came on the opening day of the Legislature’s 2022 session, with the 400-member House gathering at a Manchester hotel expo center because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the current map, the 1st District covers the eastern part of the state and some of the south, including Manchester. The 2nd District covers the western, northern and some southern communities, including Nashua.

With the latest U.S. Census figures showing the 1st District with about 18,000 more residents than the 2nd, Democrats proposed making just one change: moving the town of Hampstead from the 1st District to the 2nd.

“Our congressional districts have remained largely unchanged since they were first established in the 1880s, and I believe we have been doing it right for the last 140 years and do not suddenly need a radical redrawing of our congressional districts,” said Rep. Manny Espitia, D-Nashua.

But Republicans, who control the Legislature, on Wednesday approved creating a 1st District that climbs up from the southeast corner through the middle of the state, with the 2nd District reaching up and around it.

Republican strongholds in southern New Hampshire including Salem, Hudson, Windham and Atkinson would move into the 1st District, while Seacoast communities including Portsmouth, Rochester, Dover and Durham and surrounding towns would shift to the 2nd.

Rep. Robert Lynn, R-Windham, pushed back against accusations of gerrymandering.

“The map created by the majority does not create unfair advantages. In fact, it removes them,” he said. “The current districts are not competitive... The majority’s proposal will make at least one of them competitive. Not a walk for the Republican Party by any means, but at least competitive.”

The plan now goes to the Senate.

The House has not met in the Statehouse since March 2020. Instead, members have met at the expo center, the University of New Hampshire ice arena, outside on an athletic field, from their cars in a parking lot, and at a Bedford sports complex.

The 24-member Senate, meanwhile, spread out in Representatives Hall at the Statehouse. There, they quickly approved changing Senate rules to allow members to participate in future sessions remotely if two-thirds of the body agree. The House, however, rejected a similar proposal on a vote of 169-186.

Democratic House members with serious medical conditions have been fighting in court for remote access since the start of the pandemic.

“This provision, if passed and implemented, would not only provide for safe access both for members and for the public, but it is a provision that increases public participation, public observation and public comment,” said Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole.

Rep. Steve Smith, R-Charlestown, argued that the months lawmakers spent conducting committee meetings and hearings online has let to more animosity and less congeniality.

“House members have come to regard each other as talking heads on a screen,” he said in opposition to the proposed rule change.

Another Republican later drew both applause and jeers when he opposed a bill to allow lawmakers to be reimbursed for mileage when driving to sessions held away from the Statehouse.

“This bill further perpetuates a pandemic that has come to an end,” said Rep. Michael Sylvia, of Belmont.

This week, Rep. Keith Ammon accused Democrats of wanting to “govern this state by Zoom, on their couch in their underwear.” He told WMUR-TV that he and other members of the House “Freedom Caucus” are respecting the decisions of House Speaker Sherm Packard — who became speaker after his predecessor died of COVID-19 — for now, but pressure is building.

“At some point this term that dam’s gonna break,” he said. “It’s not this week, but it could be a month from now.”