Democracy runs deep in New Hampshire.
From our native forbears to our founding as a state in 1776 to the present day, Granite Staters have always had an aptitude and an inclination for self-governance. In pre-colonial times, members of the local Penacook tribes would meet regularly “to keep check on their representatives [and] settle important public questions directly, and over the representatives’ heads,” a precursor to the New England town meeting. (1) Archeological accounts suggest the Northeastern tribes functioned as democratic nations, where the chiefs “were not rulers but merely the trusted advisors and councilors of the people.” (2) Consultative assemblies and the direct election of chiefs by both men and women form part of a rich, and often overlooked, tradition of democratic practice that greeted the European settlers on their arrival to New Hampshire in the 17th century.
On January 5th, 1776, the Congress of New Hampshire defied the British crown and approved the first state constitution in America, establishing a representative citizen legislature that continues to this day. (3) With 424 elected members, the New Hampshire General Court is the largest state legislature in the country and one of the largest and oldest representative bodies in the world. New Hampshire’s new State Constitution and Bill of Rights, ratified in 1783, declared that "All men are born equally free and independent; therefore, all government of right originates from the people, is founded in consent, and instituted for the general good.”
Institutions of democratic self-governance continue to this day. The state’s 161 town meetings, all-volunteer state house and senate, school boards, select-boards, city councils and other citizen committees effectively manage every facet of local and state affairs and testify to the principles upon which our democratic republic was founded. The First-in-the-Nation Presidential Primary, hosted by New Hampshire every four years, serves as a model of citizen engagement in an age of mass-media campaigns. And inclusive voting laws ensure that few citizens are actively prevented from casting ballots on Election Day. Taken together, these institutions, and the revolutionary traditions on which they are based, provide a strong foundation for democratic self-governance in the Granite State.
Nevertheless, institutions of democracy alone cannot ensure robust and representative democratic practice in the 21st century. Forces both internal and external to New Hampshire appear to be seriously eroding the practice of democracy in the Granite State. A national decline in both civic participation and economic opportunity, traced by Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam of New Hampshire, is evident across multiple forms of political engagement from voting to volunteering to lobbying the government. (4) At the same time, a series of recent US Supreme Court decisions striking down longstanding campaign finance regulations has resulted in a dramatic increase in the amount and concentration of political spending, and has facilitated the effective conversion of economic resources into political power. (5) The corresponding rise in the cost of political campaigns limits access and discourages healthy competition. And new findings on government non-responsiveness affirm the popular sentiment that average Americans are not being represented in politics, creating a further disincentive to political participation. (6) This is especially true for people with lower socioeconomic status. (7) Taken together, these trends threaten New Hampshire's longstanding democratic traditions at a time when overall public confidence in government and other public and private institutions is startlingly low.
In an attempt to better understand the state of democratic health and identify specific areas in need of improvement, this inaugural Open Democracy Index comprehensively examines six dimensions of democratic practice: Voting, Civic Participation, Election Funding, Lobbying Government, Electoral Competition, and Diversity of Representation. Each dimension contains three sub-dimensions. Compiling and analyzing the most recent available state and local data for each of the 18 sub-dimensions, the report asks the how near or far New Hampshire comes to the ideal of full participation and equal representation contained in the state constitution. Where data are sufficiently robust and established standards exist to make an official assessment, letter grades are assigned (as outlined in the next section). The results do not bode well for New Hampshire’s future as part of a democratic republic. (8)
Data and Methodology
The Open Democracy Index for New Hampshire analyzes new and existing data from a variety of official sources to provide a comprehensive snapshot of the health of democracy in the Granite State in 2015. State-level voting, campaign finance, lobbying, and electoral competition data are sourced directly from the New Hampshire Secretary of State, with federal campaign finance data from the Center for Responsive Politics’ analysis of official Federal Election Commission disclosures. In the absence of a public database on lobbying and political action committees in New Hampshire, the Open Democracy research team analyzed thousands of individual disclosure forms filed with the New Hampshire Secretary of State to create a new searchable online database released in conjunction with this report. Voting data on municipal elections are obtained directly from the city clerks. Civic participation and diversity of representation data are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, the New Hampshire Secretary of State, Rutgers’ Center on American Women and Politics, and from self-reporting by individual officeholders.
In order to produce a baseline measure of democratic health that can be analyzed and updated over time, the Open Democracy Index introduces detailed criteria for assessing democratic practice under each of the six dimensions and assigns a letter grade to each. On the first two dimensions, Voting and Civic Participation, for which full participation by all citizens is most likely to produce full and equal representation in accordance with democratic norms, each letter represents a 20-point range from 0-19% of adults participating (F) to 80-100% participating (A). Recognizing that full participation is impracticable when it comes to more resource-intensive modes of political engagement in the next three dimensions – Election Funding, Lobbying Government, and Electoral Competition – letter grades follow a 10-point range from 0-10% at one end (F) to greater than 40% at the other (A). Although 40% is far below the level of absolute political equality, it is nonetheless considered a robust level of participation and competition worth striving for as a state. For the final dimension, Diversity of Representation, grading is relative to the share of the population that is female (50%) and minority (9%). Full gender parity (40-50% of seats held by women) earns a grade of A and non-representation of women (<10% of seats) is scored F in increments of 10. Full minority representation (8-9% of seats) is scored A and non-representation (<2%) F in increments of 2. For simplicity, whole letter grades without “+” or “-” are assigned throughout. Sub-dimensions for which an objective standard of democratic representation does not exist, such incumbent reelection rates and socioeconomic status, are excluded from the grading. Detailed descriptions of each grading scheme are provided below.
The purpose of the report is not to compare New Hampshire to other states, many of which earn similarly low or even lower grades, but to establish straightforward and objective measures of democratic health tailored to the Granite State. The report contains only the most recent available data from verifiable sources through 2014; where data are available to provide an historical perspective on one or more dimensions, they are included for comparison. The conclusions reached are necessarily tentative given data limitations and the time horizon under review; future reports will provide a more nuanced understanding of each dimension and the overall health of democracy in New Hampshire by charting trends over time.
This report would not be possible without the considerable research and analysis produced by various nonpartisan public policy units and academic institutions including the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Carsey School for Public Policy at UNH, State Integrity Investigation in collaboration with NHPR, Center for Public Policy Studies in Concord, and Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, DC. We are grateful to researcher Ryan Snow and to Open Democracy summer fellows Taisuke Iwasaki from New England College and James Giles from Dartmouth College for their research assistance. We are also indebted to members of the Open Democracy Board of Directors, Advisory Board, staff, and other stakeholders for providing input and review throughout the nine month research process in 2014-15.
The Open Democracy Index for New Hampshire was established by the Coalition for Open Democracy, a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) organization based in Concord, NH. Founded in 2009, Open Democracy’s mission is to increase civic engagement and accountable governance in the Granite State. Funding for this report was made possible by Putnam Foundation in Keene, NH.
For more information or to request additional copies of the Open Democracy Index, contact:
(1) W. J. Sidis, The Tribes and the States (Wampanoag Nation, 1982 (1935))
(3) NHCPPS, “What is NH” 2012
(4) Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015)
(5) Citizens United v FEC (2010) is only one of a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings limiting the ability of Congress to regulate campaign finance
(6) Martin Gilens and Benjamin I Page. “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics 12.3, Sept 2014, http://journals.cambridge.org/download.php?file=%2FPPS%2FPPS12_03%2FS1537592714001595a.pdf&code=755244dc246ae1c5454f2789ffa4ab4d
(7) Benjamin I Page, Larry M Bartels, and Jason Seawright, “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans,” Perspectives on Politics 11.1, March 2013, http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~jnd260/cab/CAB2012%20-%20Page1.pdf; Daniel Weeks, Democracy in Poverty: A View From Below (Cambridge, MA: Edmond J Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, 2015)
(8) The terms “democratic” and “democracy”, derived from the Greek δῆμος demos (“the people”) and kratos (“power” or “rule”), are used throughout the report to describe the nature of the American republic and New Hampshire’s own state government, as it is widely understood based on the Constitution. A reasonable debate about terms can be had, although it is beyond the present scope.