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‘D’ for Democracy in Granite State

Friday, July 31, 2015
Concord — New Hampshire’s democracy just brought home its report card — and it’s full of D’s and F’s, according to a report released Thursday by Open Democracy, a New Hampshire organization working to reduce the influence of money in politics.

The 40-page report compiled over the past nine months grades the status of New Hampshire’s democracy in six categories: voting, civic engagement, election funding, lobbying, electoral competition and diversity of representation. Dan Weeks, the executive director of Open Democracy and co-author along with Alexandra Brown, said he found that the “storybook version” of a representative democracy, in which citizens relish in their right to self-governance, “is no longer applicable, unfortunately.”

Most voting-age Granite Staters don’t turn out to the polls for midterms and primaries — never mind municipal elections — and can’t name their U.S. senators, much less their state representatives, the report says.

Weeks tied the increase in voter apathy to the moneyed interests of the political system.

The cost of campaigns and concentration of funders in New Hampshire reached an all-time high last year, the report says. Of the $106 million spent in total, $9.5 million went to state races, $36 million to federal races and $61 million to independent expenditures through political action committees.

This high barrier of entry can prevent the best candidates from running, said John Rauh, the founder of Americans for Campaign Reform and an advisory board member for Open Democracy. It also pushes those in office away from doing their jobs and toward fundraising.

“Candidates in New Hampshire must devote a large and growing share of their time to raising money from wealthy contributors and special interest groups,” he said at a press conference in the Legislative Office Building on Thursday.

Jim Rubens, a former state senator, pointed out that incumbent Senate candidates raised three times as much money as their competitors and won 95 percent of their races last year. He said that fact drives out the sort of competition that helps issues get solved and drowns out the voices that would otherwise present voters with a legitimate choice.

“That can lead to low voter turnout because all the issues that need to be aired — the diverse policy options that could be aired, debated and weighed by voters — are not weighed. This is the direct consequence of the concentrated money system where money flows to incumbents, and the money typically (comes) from entities that have interest in policy outcomes in the state,” he said.

As much as $450,000 was spent in one state Senate race last year, he said.

In addition to out-of-state money paying for candidates’ campaigns, it also pays for the lobbyists who inform the legislators, the report says.

Last year, 449 lobbying clients paid more than $10.2 million — 85 percent of which came from the private sector — to 249 registered lobbyists, the report says.

The top 10 lobbying clients accounted for $1.8 million in spending and were all headquartered outside of New Hampshire or were subsidiaries of out-of-state corporations, the report says.

Brad Cook, a partner and past president of Sheehan Phinney Bass & Green law firm and an advisory board member of Open Democracy, said there’s nothing wrong with lobbying, but the public should know the influence these out-of-state corporations can have.

“People don’t spend money just to do good. People generally spend money to make money,” he said.

The full report, which is available online at Open Democracy’s website, explains the criteria for each assigned grade. In categories that could feasibly have 100 percent participation — such as voter registration and turnout — grades were delineated in 20-point increments, where 80-100 means A, 60-79 means B, and so on. Those were the state’s highest grades, both B’s.

In distribution of lobbying resources and similar categories, lines were drawn differently. There, an A is awarded when 40 percent or more of clients spend half the total lobbying amount. In New Hampshire, where 13 percent of clients spent the majority of the money, the state received a D.

“Unfortunately there’s a preponderance of D’s and F’s, with an overall average of D-minus,” Weeks said.

The grades aren’t meant to be interpreted relative to other states.

Granite Staters’ exposure to presidential candidates results in “a general awareness,” Weeks said, “but I don’t know that it’s translating into meaningful participation, in part because of how those campaigns are run.” Come autumn, on television, “We will be so bombarded by attacks funded from out of state, by groups that have little if any interest in New Hampshire issues, that I think if anything ... that creates a disincentive to political participation because it just feels like you couldn’t possibly break through, and it’s all so negative,” he said.

Rubens said there’s one presidential candidate who exemplifies a phenomenon by which someone who speaks freely, without fear of the monetary consequences, has garnered tremendous support: that’s Donald Trump, the current Republican poll leader.

“You see people across the political spectrum who lean Republican or independent abandoning some of their closely held views on things like abortion and taxes and lining up — at least temporarily — behind” Trump, he said. “People rally to the cause and the candidate who is not muzzled by that system.”

Weeks said Open Democracy isn’t recommending an agenda of reform, though that may come out of the conversation that develops over time.

“We aim with this report to strike a statewide dialogue about the needed reforms, and in the coming year to develop and introduce those,” he said.

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