Remap Threatens New Hampshire's Folksy Politics
By Norma Love, Special to Stateline
For 322 years, tradition and the state constitution have protected the small towns. Now, a state Supreme Court redistricting plan threatens to dilute their political power by creating big districts that put small towns in with much larger ones.
Campaigning used to mean spending a few hundred dollars on signs, spending Saturdays greeting people at the town dump and devoting evenings to walking door-to-door. But to compete in the new, larger arena created by the redistricting plan, small town candidates will need name recognition. And to get that, they'll probably have to spend much more than they'd make in the legislature -- $100 a year plus mileage.
The court ended politics as usual for many small town candidates in July when it settled a bitter, partisan redistricting fight by redrawing House boundaries.
The new boundaries shrink the number of House districts from 195 to 88. The 88 districts cover 223 towns, 13 cities and 32 unincorporated places, mostly northern forestland.
An ideal district would have one representative for 3,089 people, but few towns fit the ideal so the court mix-and-matched small and large towns to create districts whose population total most closely produced the correct number of representatives.
The court ended a longstanding practice called "floterials" that was intended to give as many small towns as possible at least one representative. The "excess" population from several towns was used to make a district that "floated" over the towns who shared the extra representative.
Voters must now pick from a slate of candidates running at large across the district. The largest district has nearly 42,600 people - combining two cities with a small town, population 2,648 - making it closer in size to a state Senate district.
Another district combines a large town (population 25,119) with a small one (population 7,360) that have a river between them. A longtime incumbent from the smaller town fell victim to the redistricting change, losing in last Tuesday's primary.
The map gives the advantage to candidates from larger towns unless they already are well known or have the money to reach out to voters.
"I believe people who are well-spoken, know the issues and work hard will always have an opportunity, but the probability is going to favor candidates from larger towns," says former Deputy Speaker Michael Whalley.
New Hampshire's tradition of small town representation dates to 1680 when the state's first four towns got representatives in what was then called the Assembly, says Secretary of State William Gardner.
"Each town was considered a separate entity for representation," says Gardner. "It was an attempt to provide each town with a representative. That's why we have the biggest Legislature in the country."
In those days, feelings ran high about representation -- especially after a clash with King George over granting seats to towns. Lawmakers voted to give any town with enough eligible voters a voice in the legislature, but the royal governor wanted to decide the issue and King George vetoed the law, says Gardner.
Originally, representation was based on the population of adult males with taxable property who qualified to vote. In 1784, the state constitution established a formula to set the number of seats based on eligible voters. The formula was changed in 1876 to use population instead so as towns grew they would have more representatives.
Treating towns individually was so important that voters also amended the constitution so that no towns could be divided without their consent. The court cited that provision in July's decision not to divide larger towns to create small, single-member districts.
The formula remained in effect until 1942. By then, the House's size was getting unwieldy. It had grown from 91 representatives in 1784 to 432. That year, voters amended the state constitution to limit its size to between 375 and 400. The number dropped to 400 and stayed there.
The size of the New Hampshire legislature makes it the third-largest parliamentary body in the English-speaking world. Only the U.S. Congress and Britain's Parliament are larger.
Despite the new rules, 722 people signed up to run in last Tuesday's primary -- he most since 1976.
"I think there are people who run for the Legislature who think they're volunteering for a job. It's public service, not politics," Whalley says.
Whalley, a 48-year-old Republican, had expected to run for re-election in a district of several small towns. Instead, he found himself competing against 11 others - including five incumbents - for eight seats in a five-town district with a population approaching 25,000.
His old district was one town, Bow, population about 7,100.
"I can't imagine spending $8,000 for a volunteer, public service job," he says. "My biggest expense may be pencils that say, 'Mike Whalley.'"
Whalley won one of the eight nominations in a Republican-leaning district giving him a good chance of returning to Concord.
Democrat Gabriel "Gabby" Daneault, 77, of Allenstown, doesn't plan to spend much either campaigning for a seat in his new four-town district despite long odds. His town is about one-third the size of the largest of the four towns in his new district.
"I'm not going to spend more than $100. I'm going to put some signs in every town and hope for the best," he says.
Republican Rep. Tony Soltani, a 41-year-old lawyer from Epsom, took no chances competing for one of the eight seats in the same district.
A primary winner, he plans to spend $7,000 to $8,000 buying signs, ads in local shopper newspapers and for mailings to preserve Epsom's voice at the Statehouse. Last election, he spent about $1,000 and walked his district composed of two small towns, he says.
"The retail politics in New Hampshire is over where you vote for the face and name. I (used to know) 60 percent of the people in my district," Soltani says.
Gardner, too, laments the shift away from small town representation.
"We will know in November how many towns no longer have their own representative," says Gardner. "They will have a representative, but he may not live in town."
Norma Love covers New Hampshire politics for the Associated Press.