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Column: The Trouble With Democracy in New Hampshire



For the Valley News
Thursday, August 06, 2015
I was raised with the unshakeable belief that my vote counts. Growing up in the small town of Temple, N.H., I would tag along to Town Meeting, sit in on community discussions, and watch the grow-ups debate issues large and small.

As a student at ConVal High School in Peterborough, my friends and I were part of an innovative civic action project called Democracy in Practice. We practiced democracy by drafting warrant articles, holding mock elections and organizing summits to educate our peers on the major issues of the day. We were trained in public deliberation and put those skills to work when a local development issue threatened to divide our town. When the 2000 election rolled around, we even got to meet the presidential candidates during that marvelous spectacle of old-fashioned politicking that is the New Hampshire primary.

I took it for granted that everyone voted in New Hampshire and everyone’s voice was heard. Democracy was my default.

But a new report released last week finds that the storybook version of democracy I knew growing up simply does not exist for the vast majority of people in the Granite State.

The nonpartisan Open Democracy Index, a first-of-its-kind report assembled over the last nine months, measures the health of democracy in New Hampshire across six core dimensions from voting to lobbying to electoral competition. By sorting through all of the available data on democratic participation and representation in the Granite State, the report finds that New Hampshire is falling far short of the ideals expressed in our state Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

According to the report:

∎ Fewer than one in five New Hampshire citizens consistently casts a ballot in local and state elections.

∎ Between one in five and one in 10 New Hampshirites participates in other basic forms of civic action, such as contacting elected officials or joining a community group.

∎ One in almost 100 Granite Staters contributes any amount of money to political campaigns, even as one in 2,000 contributes more than half of the total.

∎ A majority of the record-breaking $106 million that was spent on the 2014 election came from outside super PACs running attack ads.

∎ In spite of the astronomical sums of campaign cash, most New Hampshire elections are woefully uncompetitive with incumbents outspending challengers by a factor of two or three to one.

∎ Women and people of color are grossly under-represented in government, commanding less than 30 percent and 1 percent of elected state offices, respectively.

The purpose of the report, on which I was privileged to work, is not to condemn the state we love. Things could certainly be worse, as a quick glance toward Washington, D.C., will show. Rather, the purpose is to spark a deeper dialogue about some of the most basic questions we can ask in public life: Are we being represented? Are our voices being heard?

Time and again, on issue after issue of public concern, the evidence suggests that ordinary citizens are effectively silent in politics for reasons that are partly within and partly beyond their control. To the extent such disengagement is within the power of citizens to reverse, they must take responsibility for changing course or suffer the consequences of under-representation. For most Granite Staters who possess the right to vote, for example, staying home on Election Day is a choice that must be changed.

But the choice to vote is not made in a vacuum. As the Open Democracy Index points out, voting is informed by the barrage of negative attacks, paid for by out-of-state interests, that leave us sick to our stomachs when we contemplate either side. Voting is discouraged by the slew of practical barriers that stand in the way for people without a stable address or photo ID. And voting and other forms of political engagement are undermined when people perceive that lobbyists and major campaign contributors are able to dominate debate. Indeed, when money is a precondition for public service, those without it can’t serve.

Systemic challenges like these require a systemic response. The time has come for New Hampshire to begin a public discussion about democracy itself and consider the wide range of available election reforms practiced by other states. Until New Hampshire’s leaders and citizens face the uncomfortable facts about our democratic health as a state, there is little chance that we will ever attain the ideals of representative government handed down by our Founding Fathers.

In honor of our traditions as a democratic republic, and for the sake of future citizens growing up in small towns and cities across the Granite State, I hope we will face the facts and advance needed reforms without delay.



Daniel Weeks is executive director of the nonpartisan nonprofit Open Democracy and a co-author of the new Open Democracy Index. The full report and data can be downloaded at www.opendemocracy.me/odi.