Unusual attendance and voting data emerge from an unusual legislative session

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In 2021, representatives were allowed to participate in committee meetings via Zoom, and the House only met in-person for nine voting days this year.

2021 was an unusual legislative year, from the House of Representatives’ drive-in voting day to the Senate’s Zoom-a-thons. This weirdness is reflected in attendance and voting data, which shows several all-time highs and lows for the Legislature.

The House

In 2021, representatives were allowed to participate in committee meetings via Zoom, and the House only met in-person for nine voting days this year. The House usually holds twice as many voting days, or more. These changes resulted in high attendance for voting days in the House of Representatives. On average, each representative participated in 90% of roll call votes in 2021. That’s a record high going back to at least 1999, the first year available in the online database of votes.

(It is worth noting, however, that about a dozen representatives – Republicans and Democrats alike – still participated in less than half of the votes. Given the Covid-19 emergency, it is likely some of these representatives were unable to attend in-person voting days due to health conditions.)

The House set another record in 2021, this time for partisanship. There are many different ways to measure partisanship and political polarization, but arguably the most well-known is the “party unity” measure from Congressional Quarterly. Party unity is the percentage of votes in each legislative session in which a majority of one party opposed a majority of the other party. This reflects how often legislators drew a sharp line in the sand based on party, with few legislators crossing party lines.

Party unity was 92% in the New Hampshire House in 2021. That’s an all-time high going back to 1999, the first year online voting records are available.

This is arguably not a good look for the New Hampshire House; partisanship is practically a dirty word these days. However, “party unity” is also a measure of how effectively each party martials its caucus to pass or defeat legislation.

With fewer voting days and a tight margin between Democrats and Republicans in the 2021 House, party leaders had to work hard to secure the votes for some bills. The state budget bills, House Bills 1 and 2, were a notable victory for the House Republicans, who faced opposition from Democrats as well as some in their own party. Republican leaders were not so successful wrangling votes for Senate Bill 61, a right-to-work bill.

For the real policy wonks out there, it is interesting to note that there were not vastly fewer roll call votes in 2021 than in previous years. In other words, even though the House met much less frequently to vote in 2021, the total number of roll call votes was roughly similar to the number recorded in previous years. There were 196 roll call votes in the House from January through June 2021. That is somewhat less than the number of roll call votes in 2019, the last non-pandemic year (261). However, it is more than the number of roll call votes in 2017 (152), 2015 (174), and other earlier years.

The Senate

In 2021, New Hampshire senators continued their record of gold-star attendance, with each participating in 99% of votes on average. This may have been a little easier to do in 2021, since most of the Senate’s voting days took place over Zoom.

While attendance soared, party unity sank to an all-time low in the state Senate in 2021, clocking in at 30%. However, this number was almost certainly deflated due to a change in procedure when voting over Zoom.

There are a few different ways to take a vote in the state Legislature. A roll call vote attaches each legislator’s name to a “yea” or “nay” vote. A voice vote, in contrast, has every legislator say “yea” or “nay” in chorus; the louder side wins. Voice votes are used when a vote is expected to be one-sided.

Party unity is the percentage of votes in which a majority of one party opposed a majority of the other party. Voice votes are not included in the calculation of party unity because there is no way to know exactly how many members of each party voted each way.

Zoom doesn’t lend itself to people talking at the same time, so the Senate relied much more heavily on roll call votes than voice votes this year. Many of these roll call votes were on non-controversial bills that would usually get a voice vote and therefore be excluded from the calculation of party unity.

To put the numbers in perspective, there were 445 roll call votes in the Senate in 2021, compared to 104 in 2020 and 255 in 2019. A whopping 56% of 2021 roll call votes were unanimous, compared to just 24% in 2020 and 14% in 2019.

In the end, partisanship appears to plummet in the Senate in 2021, but much of that change is due to the huge number of roll call votes on non-controversial bills. Assuming the Senate returns to in-person sessions next year, it remains to be seen if party unity will return to its last peak, in 2019, or stay at more moderate levels.

Citizens Count is a nonprofit serving the New Hampshire community by providing objective information about issues, elected officials, bills, elections, and candidates. Theis article is being shared by partners in the Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.

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