I saw a children's map of the United States recently that I am afraid might not that accurate. Along with the names and borders of states there we also icons representing that particular state's accepted brand.
For Georgia there were peaches. For Indiana, a race car. For New Hampshire, there was a ballot box. It should be a point of pride for Granite Staters that our state is known as an icon for American politics. With the most citizen of legislatures, our spring town hall meetings, and our first-in-the-nation presidential primary, it makes sense that our political culture stands out. But as this past week showed there is a flaw to this line of thinking. Our dirty little secret is that when it comes to our other primary — the non-presidential kind — our democracy isn't so participatory. The good news is that there is something we can do about it that isn't just pie-in-the-sky thinking.
Less than one of out five voters went to the ballot on Tuesday to pick Republican and Democratic nominees for U.S. Senate and governor all the way down to county commissioner. (Keep in mind this ratio is just among registered voters. The voter turnout rate is actually much lower when you include all adults, many of whom aren't registered to vote.) You might see this turnout as pathetic. But it is actually the third highest turnout in state history that we have had on the Republican side, which had most of the contested primaries this year.
Henniker, we have a problem.
The good news is that this is the rare example where amending a law might fix the problem. In 1979, when the New Hampshire Legislature last looked into the date of the state primary, deemed it to be on the second Tuesday in September.
The result is that most of the heavy campaigning takes place in August, when much of the state is tuned out on summer vacation or busy making a buck on summer tourists. In the closing days of the primary, the state's mindset in on going back to school.
This could change if the Legislature decided to simply follow the route of most other states move the primary to something like late May or June. At this date, it is less likely that the primary election will take a back seat to other concerns. This year's primary date was the latest in the country.
In fact, our primary date is so late that it impacts the general election in November as well. This year there are only eight weeks between the September primary and the November election. Tactically, this gives a huge, unfair advantage to incumbents.
Take, for example, the state's 1st Congressional district seat. Republican Frank Guita only had $187,000 in his campaign account just days before the primary and likely spent most of it just to win, leaving him broke. His Democratic opponent, incumbent Carol Shea-Porter, didn't have a primary and was sitting on nearly six times the campaign cash. It is good for democracy that challengers like Guinta have no time to replenish campaign funds to compete with incumbents?
There will be those who will reject moving up the primary date to before the summer. I asked former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg about it this week and wants to keep the primary where it is simply for tradition. I have also heard some rightly point out that with just a 2-year term for governor and Congress moving up the primary will mean more campaigning and less governing.There is also an argument to be made that it will mean campaigns will be more expensive, but that is harder to prove.
However, these factors need to be weighed against the concern of getting more people to vote. We are New Hampshire after all, and the ballot box is the very thing that puts us on the map.
(James Pindell covers New Hampshire politics for WMUR-TV. You can follow his breaking news and analysis at WMUR.com/politicalscoop.)
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