March 24, 2016

Today, the New Hampshire State Senate joined the State House in voting down online voter registration (OVR), a system already in place in a majority of American states which would have reduced barriers to voting for many of our citizens. Opponents cited a highly-inflated estimate of the program's cost. The NH Secretary of State placed the cost at $1.8 million, more than the cost of implementing OVR for the entire state of California with a population of nearly 40 million people compared to New Hampshire's 1.3 million people. The rejection of OVR by the Legislature follows a pattern of voter suppression evident in New Hampshire and many other states even where no evidence of voter impersonation fraud exists.

The need to streamline voter registration was clearly evident on Primary Day February 9th, when some New Hampshire voters waited in line for two hours or more in order to register and cast their ballots. The District 5 town of Merrimack, for example, experienced significant traffic concerns, the subject of a hearing by the Merrimack Town Council last night. In the absence of early voting, a voting holiday, or no-excuses absentee ballot voting, it is imperative that the state ensure efficient access to the polls by modernizing our voter registration system as 31 other states have done. 

The Executive Council is meant to be a steward of good governance in Concord and a bridge between citizens and their government. As Councilor for District 5 and a longtime nonpartisan democracy advocate, I will urge the State Legislature to adopt election modernization measures and work with the Secretary of State, the Governor, and the Executive Council to obtain and approve cost-effective proposals for the implementation of such measures.


For more on election modernization, please see the following column by Dan Weeks and past president of the NH Charitable Foundation Lew Feldstein, which appeared in the Concord Monitor on February 18th.

Memo to state senators: Invest in democracy


For the Monitor
Thursday, February 18, 2016

In 1998, we began a New Hampshire experiment in civic engagement.

One of us, Lew, was concerned that too many Granite Staters were graduating from high school without a basic understanding of citizenship. As president of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation at the time, he tracked the increasing estrangement of New Hampshire’s youth from the proud political traditions of our state, and saw the resulting cost on our communities. Then, as now, the vast majority of 18- to 24-year-olds did not vote and could not name their elected representatives. They were effectively silent in civic life.

The other, Dan, was an unsuspecting student at ConVal High School in Peterborough, primarily concerned with teenage things like making friends, making the team, getting good grades. When Lew and the foundation decided to bring the Civic Action Project pilot to his school, Dan received a powerful shot of civic adrenaline that continues to this day.

The CAP experiment grew out of Lew’s work on social capital-building with Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam of Jaffrey, author of Bowling Alone. The premise, as outlined in their aptly named book Better Together, was that “establishing bonds of trust and understanding” (social capital) among diverse people was essential to “the economic and social health of countries, regions, cities, and towns . . . and to individual accomplishment and well-being.” Civic health, the data showed, was not merely an end in itself – it was a means to the end of happier, healthier, more productive lives, and safer and stronger communities. New Hampshire had historically led the nation in civic health.

By reaching students like Dan in their formative years and training them in the civic arts of community-building and deliberative democracy, CAP was designed to help turn the tide of social capital erosion evident in New Hampshire and across the United States. Out of CAP grew Democracy in Practice, a youth initiative led by Dan, which drew hundreds of students from across the state to Concord for issue summits, candidate forums, voter drives and legislative hearings – all with the nonpartisan aim of strengthening democracy for their own and future generations.

For many of those involved, “democracy in practice” did not end in high school. Veterans of the program went on to work for Republican and Democratic governors and members of Congress; start nonprofits; run local, state, and national campaigns – or run for office themselves; and build community in countless ways. All who were involved would be embarrassed not to vote today.

Although CAP alone could not stem the decline in social capital, its lesson is clear: Small investments in hands-on civics education – beyond the single quarter of classroom learning required in New Hampshire public schools today – can turn unsuspecting students like Dan into active citizens and “social capitalists,” and reap lasting rewards for individuals, their communities and society at large.

Taking these lessons to scale is precisely the goal of an important new bill, SB 518, introduced by state Sen. Dan Feltes.

The measure, which is slated for a vote today in the Senate, would create an Innovative Civics Education Program administered by the New Hampshire Department of Education to provide grants to school districts “that maintain education programs promoting active and engaged citizenship through a thorough understanding of civics.” Funding would come from a modest fee on political committees that now spend millions of dollars in private contributions to influence our elections, often in the form of attack ads that discourage voting and undermine honest debate. The bill would also provide much-needed resources for the enforcement of existing campaign finance laws.

The Senate should not stop there. Since informed voting is the first obligation of citizens and habits formed early stick, lawmakers should also pass SB 423 to clarify the right of 17-year-olds to register if they will be 18 before the next election, and SB 507 to establish secure online voter registration, or OVR. In a majority of American states, OVR is saving millions of dollars and needless inaccuracies that come with decentralized paper systems. It saves time too, as the many first-time voters who waited in line for an hour to register in last week’s primary can attest. These measures and others to standardize voting hours and ensure accessibility at the polls would help bring New Hampshire’s unique political culture into the 21st century.

Proud as we both are of our state’s civic life – including another memorable first-in-the-nation presidential primary last week – we remain concerned about high rates of disengagement among certain segments of society, especially the young. When a majority of Granite Staters over age 18 do not cast a ballot, as was the case last week, and fewer than one in five have basic civic knowledge, according to the Open Democracy Index, our state and our communities cannot be whole.

The time is now for state leaders to continue the vital experiment in civic engagement for future generations by passing these common-sense reforms.

Lew Feldstein serves on the advisory board of Open Democracy, a Concord-based nonpartisan organization committed to civic engagement and accountable governance. Dan Weeks was the group’s executive director until March 2016.