Cook On Concord: Voters gave little notice to the invisible primary

What if they held an election and nobody voted? This is almost what happened Sept. 12 in the state primary. Secretary of State William Gardner estimated that turnout was about 12 percent of eligible voters, a record low.

Why was turnout so abysmal? Common assumptions are that with no contests for governor, both incumbent Democrat John Lynch and Republican candidate James Coburn having no primary opposition, no U.S. Senate seat up for election in 2006 and the scant number of contested races, voters were not motivated to go to the polls. Indeed, in Ward 1 in Manchester where I vote in the Republican primary, the only contests on the ballot were for U.S. Representative, some unknown having filed against incumbent Jeb Bradley, and delegate to the state Republican convention, neither of which was a major motivating factor. This was the situation in many election districts around the state.

When there are light turnouts results depend greatly on the motivation of voters for a candidate. If a candidate can get all of his or her voters out, he or she can win a victory that might not occur if every voter voted. The results thus defy pundits, polls and conventional wisdom.

A good example of that in this primary was the race in the Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District nomination. The most well known of the candidates was attorney and New Hampshire House Minority Leader Jim Craig. Craig was endorsed by the National Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, various newspapers, and he raised substantial funds. Notwithstanding that effort, he was defeated by Carol Shea-Porter, a political activist from the Seacoast. Shea-Porter had a distinct and clear message: she was running against the war in Iraq. Craig’s message was a little more diffuse — claiming to be the most electable, loyal Democrat with superior office-holding and other experience.

Shea-Porter got her voters to the polls. Craig’s strength was presumed to come from a good turnout of regular Democrats, especially in the Manchester area. While Craig won in Manchester, his victory there could not overcome Shea-Porter’s voters, who gave her a 54 percent total to Craig’s 35.

In winning, Shea-Porter not only won her Seacoast constituency and home county of Strafford, she also won such places as Londonderry, Derry, Merrimack, Candia, and came close in other towns surrounding Manchester, with her message and grassroots efforts.

Congressman Bradley won his primary easily and will face Shea-Porter in November. Conventional wisdom again gives Shea-Porter no chance, given her relative inability to raise money and Bradley’s incumbency. However, while Bradley should win, he also should pay attention to this insurgent.


The New Hampshire Supreme Court has issued yet another school-funding decision in the long line of cases that have become known as the “Claremont Decisions.”

In this one, the Londonderry School District and several others that had suffered reduced funding under the most recent school-funding formula sued to have that scheme set aside as inconsistent with the Claremont decisions previously issued by the Supreme Court. The present plan, authored largely by Senate President Ted Gatsas, set a criteria for aid and reduced the number of donor towns to almost none under the statewide property tax system.

The five justices found the current plan unconstitutional. Two other judges joined the decision of the newest justice, Gary Hicks, in setting aside the plan, urging the Legislature to define educational “adequacy” in detail, as required by the prior decisions, and giving the Legislature until the end of June 2007 to get its act together.

In a decision reminiscent of previous decisions that deferred to the Legislature to do the defining, the court basically was saying, “I really, really, really mean it this time.”

Implying that it would take upon itself the job of defining adequacy if the Legislature fails to do so this year, the court again said it would prefer the legislative branch perform that function. States in which the court has taken unto itself the job were cited in the decision.

There were two concurring/dissenting opinions issued by Justices James Duggan and Richard Galway. Duggan would have had the court act more strongly and also act on the funding an adequate education. Galway stressed the role of the Legislature and not the court. Both judges found the current plan inconsistent with the Claremont decisions and therefore invalid.

In a gubernatorial race where there were apparently no particular issues prior to the decision, the decision seems to have provided Republican candidate Coburn an issue, if he can formulate it and tempt Governor Lynch into the debate.

Lynch expressed no interest in a special session of the Legislature or a constitutional amendment, and indicated that the Legislature and governor can deal with the issue when the new legislators convene in January.

Nevertheless, the stage is set for the November elections. Hopefully, there will be a lot more interest in November than there was in September at the primary, so that the “will of the people” will be expressed and not just the will of those who bother to vote.

Brad Cook is a partner in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green and heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

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