Let’s face the facts about democracy in NH
A new report finds that the storybook version doesn’t exist for the vast majority
I was raised with the unshakable belief that my vote counts.
Growing up in Temple, I would tag along to town meetings, sit in on community discussions and watch the grownups 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.
But a new report finds that the storybook version of democracy 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, 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 and five and one in 10 New Hampshirites partakes in other basic forms of civic action, like contacting elected officials.
• One in almost 100 Granite Staters contributes any amount of money to political campaigns, even as one in 2,000 contributes more than half.
• A majority of the record-breaking $106 million that was spent on the 2014 election came from outside super PACs running negative attacks.
• 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. 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?
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.
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.
When money is a precondition for public service, those without can’t serve.
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.
Daniel Weeks is executive director of the nonpartisan nonprofit Open Democracy and a co-author of the Open Democracy Index. The full report can be read at opendemocracy.me/odi.