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Tom Forest and Dave Bergeron spotted “Granite the Bear” last week while they climbed Mount Caesar in Swanzey. Forest, a Swanzey resident, said the creature appeared to be waiting patiently for Santa Claus. As of press time, The Sentinel could not confirm whether Jolly Old St. Nick had made it to the mountain.

Proposed legislation would limit New Hampshire’s primary elections to party voters

Undeclared voters have had a say in New Hampshire’s primary elections for over 100 years, but one bill this year could change that.

While the current system allows New Hampshire’s roughly 410,000 undeclared voters to decide on election day which party’s primary they want to vote in, House Bill 1166 would require voters to declare a party affiliation at least four months in advance.

This would do away with the longstanding tradition of having New Hampshire primaries semi-closed — a hybrid type of primary in which previously undeclared voters can participate in the partisan primary of their choice.

HB 1166 would restrict New Hampshire primaries to only allow members of each party to vote in their primary elections. This system, called a closed primary, is not uncommon, as bill sponsor Rep. David Love pointed out.

“There’re 14 other states that have closed primaries and that is essentially what this bill will do,” Love, a Derry Republican, said.

One of Love’s central concerns with the semi-closed system is that there are no rules against undeclared voters from submitting spoiler votes in a primary to intentionally influence the outcome in favor of the opposite party.

“I don’t think that’s what our founders had in mind when they put together the language in the Constitution for elections, and I think it’s a good idea to stop it,” Love said.

Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said there is little evidence that there’s been an organized effort for members of a different party to vote in another party’s primary that has any impact on who actually wins the primary.

He added that the New Hampshire state primaries typically have a low turnout — about 15-20 percent.

“It’s one of those ‘what ifs’ in politics that people are always concerned about,” Smith said. “It’s hard enough to get people to vote, period, let alone organize them to muck around in the other party’s primary.”

Closed vs. open primaries

In addition to protecting against potential spoiler votes from political opponents, the basic tenet behind closed primaries is that they grant parties more control over their own elections.

Smith said the democratization of the nomination process, which started in the late 1800s, was designed to weaken the power of political parties.

“Political parties don’t like open primaries. It’s a wild card,” Smith said. “They only want people who are members of their party voting in their primary, and that makes sense. If you’re a Republican, why would you want to have Democrats come over and mess around in your primary? You only want Republicans to choose who the Republican nominee is going to be, and the same is true for Democrats.”

The argument for open primaries is that the elections become more democratic — anybody can vote in any primary.

Smith added that there’s one step that’s even more open than that: a single ballot primary, where both Republicans and Democrats are listed on the same ballot in the primary, and the top two candidates face off against each other in the general election.

California, Louisiana and Washington all have top-two primary systems, and such primaries could produce less-extreme lawmakers, one study out of the University of Southern California suggests.

The 2020 research found that lawmakers elected in states with top-two primaries are “less likely to cast extreme ideological votes on legislation” as candidates must appeal to a wide range of voters.

With New Hampshire’s semi-closed primaries falling between the two options, Smith said the system is one of the things Granite Staters have pointed to over time to justify why the state should have the first presidential primary in the country.

“Having a closed primary would certainly weaken the case that New Hampshire could make about why it should have the first primary,” Smith said. “It’s a small, white, wealthy state up in New England. Why the heck should they be first in line to decide who the nominee is going to be? Well, the people in New Hampshire can point to these things that are small ‘d’ democratic things that make the state different.”

The number of undeclared voters has grown more than twofold since the 1990s — from just over 200,000 in 1990 to nearly 410,000 in June 2021 — and they now outnumber both Republicans and Democrats.

This is because so many New Hampshire voters preferred being undeclared that state election law was changed to make it easier to remain registered as undeclared after voting in one of the parties’ primaries, Smith said.

Closed primaries and voter turnout

Overall, researchers are not settled on the issue of whether closed primaries impact voter turnout; but, it appears that even though open primaries increase voter turnout compared to closed primaries, there is little difference in voter turnout between semi-closed and closed.

Using data from 1980 to 2012, one researcher no difference in voter turnout between semi-closed and closed primaries.

Using state and party-level data from 1972 to 2016, two American political scientists found that semi-closed primaries actually decrease voter turnout, on average, by 2.1 percent compared to closed primaries.

“Contests that allow voters to choose which party ballot they want to participate in increases turnout, on average, by 1.5 percent, but semi-closed primaries have lower turnout, on average, by 2.1 percent,” according to the authors, “Perhaps modified open primaries do not result in higher turnout because many independents are unaware that they can participate or do not want to declare a party allegiance and change their voter registration.”

One narrow study, which used data from 2008, showed that there was a slight increase in voter turnout associated with open and semi-closed primaries, as opposed to closed.

“[P]articipation tends to be lower in closed primaries compared to open and semi-closed primaries, where all voters may participate.”

However, the researchers warn that the effect was slight. “Thus, greater inclusiveness does appear to lead to higher turnout, but the effect is not overwhelming.”

Changing party affiliation

Among the 14 states that boast a closed primary system are Maine, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York. Vermont holds open primaries — meaning any registered voter can vote in either primary — and Massachusetts holds semi-closed primaries similar to New Hampshire.

With both closed and semi-closed primaries, voters looking to change their partisanship typically must change their affiliation before candidates file to run.

“The logic behind it is that you shouldn’t be changing your partisanship just because you like one candidate or the other,” Smith said. He added that the requirement in Love’s bill to declare affiliation at least four months, or 120 days, before the primary is not unusual.

Currently, a voter looking to change affiliation must do so by the first Wednesday in June before the election for the state primary election, and by the day that candidates can file for office for the presidential primary.

For the 2020 presidential primary, New Hampshire voters had until 110 days before election day to change their affiliation.

Voters can change their affiliation by going in-person to their town hall and filling out a form with the clerk.

Under New Hampshire’s semi-closed system, undeclared voters choose which party’s election to vote in on primary day — technically declaring their affiliation. While they are voting, they are a member of that party, Smith said.

A voter can change their status back to undeclared by filling out a form before leaving the polling place, but if they don’t fill out the form they remain a member of the party.

If Love’s bill were to become law, this undeclared system would no longer be in place, and only registered members of the two parties would be able to vote in each primary.

The bill would also require that if a candidate wants to run on either party’s ballot, they must be a member of that party for at least six months before the election.

Currently in New Hampshire, there is no requirement to be a member of the party for which you seek nomination, and that is something Smith said candidates take advantage of.

“A lot of state representatives in particular take advantage of this in some districts which are overwhelmingly Republican or overwhelmingly Democrat, they’ll get their name on both ballots,” Smith said. “When they have strong name recognition, they can win on both the Republican ticket and the Democratic ticket, meaning they face off against themselves in the general election.”

Love said he wants to prevent candidates who might have Democratic or Socialist values from running in the Republican primaries.

“It’s really too bad that something like this has to be done in order to keep it the way an election is intended to be,” he said.

The bill will soon head to the House, where it will be assigned a committee at the start of the new legislative session in early January.

“It would shock me if it passed, but it’s a subject that needs discussion,” Love said.

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Legislative proposal would repeal N.H.'s Education Freedom Accounts
  • Updated

A total of 1,635 students across New Hampshire, including dozens in the Monadnock Region, are participating in a new program allowing state money to be used to pay for their private education, a program that state Sen. Jay Kahn would like to end.

The Keene Democrat is proposing legislation that would repeal the so-called Education Freedom Account program, which has been hailed by the GOP and generally opposed by public school advocates and Democrats. Interest in the program has far outstripped N.H. Department of Education projections.

“I’m opposed to public funding of private and religious schools,” the Keene Democrat said in a recent interview. “I believe that our mandates are to provide an opportunity for an adequate education in our public schools.”

Kahn said the voucher-like program, which began this year, puts the state in the position of supporting more than 100 participating private education providers. That list includes several local schools such as Trinity Christian School and Saint Joseph Regional School in Keene, as well as Dublin Christian Academy, according to the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which has a contract with the state to administer the program.

“It dilutes the state’s ability to serve all students and do so in a manner that has a great deal of transparency and accountability,” said Kahn, whose Senate District 10 covers Alstead, Chesterfield, Gilsum, Harrisville, Hinsdale, Keene, Marlborough, Nelson, Roxbury, Sullivan, Surry, Swanzey, Walpole, Westmoreland and Winchester.

In a news release last month, N.H. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut praised the program, which serves 36 students in Keene, 26 in Jaffrey and 26 in Rindge, the Monadnock Region municipalities with the highest participation in the program.

“This is a true milestone for New Hampshire, especially since the pandemic created a clear demand for new and expansive educational options,” he said. “Education Freedom Accounts provide families with the flexibility to thrive while using customized learning, tutoring services, career schools, technical schools, homeschooling, and non-public and private schools to enhance and personalize academic experiences.”

The program is available to families earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level, or $79,500 for a family of four. It provides the basic state aid available to students, which is about $4,600.

While Kahn’s bill would do away with the program, other, GOP-backed, measures would expand it by increasing income eligibility levels or allowing local education money to be added to the program’s funding.

Other bills, backed by Democrats, seek to improve oversight of the program by requiring audits or closer scrutiny of educational providers. Another bill sponsored by Kahn would require families to meet income requirements yearly, instead of just once upon entry to the program as is the case now.

The N.H. Legislature will begin to take up bills after its session begins next month.

With surge in COVID-19 cases, area EMS crews are stretched thin

LEBANON — The surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations is leading to a troubling secondary trend: a spike in calls to first responders.

Emergency medical services are experiencing a spike in 911 calls — and a demand on resources and equipment — as a result of the spread of COVID-19 variants, taxing personnel and resources in the final weeks of what has been already a stressful year for many responders, Upper Valley EMS services report.

“We’re on track to have one of our busiest years in the last 20,” said Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos.

EMS calls to the Lebanon Fire Department in 2021 are running 5 percent higher than in 2020 — which dipped slightly from 2019 because of the spring and summer economic shutdown that kept people at home — and are on track to hit or exceed 2,700 for the year, according to Christopoulos.

Calls for EMS are coming in at the rate of 10 to 12 per day of which “at least eight to 10 are COVID,” the Lebanon chief estimated. The increase has been especially noticeable in the past month as the delta variant spread and now emergency responders are bracing for another wave due to the omicron variant.

“I don’t see this trending downward anytime soon,” Christopoulos said.

Across the river in Hartford, the fire department is also experiencing a higher volume in people calling 911.

Deputy Chief Jason Czora didn’t have a breakdown between EMS calls and fire calls but said that overall volume this year is up 200 calls, or 13 percent, from 2020.

“We hit last year’s total number on Dec. 1,” he said.

Although Hartford EMS has had to respond to only 13 calls where the call involved a confirmed case of COVID-19, “five of those have been since Nov. 1,” Czora said.

Czora attributes the double-digit rise in 911 calls in Hartford to the influx of people relocating to the Upper Valley to reduce the risk of exposure during the pandemic.

But every ambulance ride involving a confirmed or even suspected COVID-19 infected individual is a drag on EMS resources, he explained.

That’s because each time an ambulance transporting a COVID-19 patient returns to the station department, staff must disinfect it, a process that takes up to an hour and during which the vehicle is out of service and not available to respond to another call.

The department has three ambulances but if the second is already dispatched on a call that leaves little room for any additional glitches, such as recently happened.

“Last week we had to transport a COVID-19 positive person and our third ambulance was broken down,” Czora related, as the part needed was not available because of “supply chain issues.”

“So we had to rely on Lebanon to handle the call,” he said.

Lebanon’s Christopoulos said turn-around times during the decontamination procedure is not the only factor holding back response times. So is the COVID-19 caseload in the emergency room, which causes down-the-line backups.

Typically a turn-around time between arrival and departure at the ER is five to 10 minutes. But with all the beds filled in emergency rooms, the patient being transported must remain in the ambulance until a bed in the ER opens up, Christopoulos said.

“We are seeing bumps up to 20 minutes and even 30 minutes until a bed opens up in the ER. The ambulance is out of service until we can move the patient appropriately to the ER. It has a ripple effect. More times lately we are running three ambulances,” he said.

“We’re staffing our third ambulance a lot more than we ever have in the past,” the police chief said.

Then there is the problem of simple physics: an ambulance cannot be in two different places at the same time.

Canaan Fire Chief Bill Bellion, who is also an EMT, said that he expects ambulance calls to increase about 100 this year to 500, of which he estimates between 25 to 30 percent of the increase is attributable to COVID-19 patients.

The department can handle that, he said, but timing can challenge resources and responders.

“We’ll be out on a fire call when a second (EMS) call will come in. That’s happened about 10 times this year,” Bellion said. “And that’s what really hurts us.”

Canaan Ambulance, which has one full-time EMT employee but otherwise relies upon 12 regular members to respond to calls, will be adding a second full-time EMT in January.

“Even so we will still be relying upon our on-call people to cover 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.,” said Bellion, noting that volunteers are paid a $6 per hour stipend because “we have to give them something in recognition of the time and commitments they are making.”

At Golden Cross Ambulance in Claremont, owner Dale Girard said they are seeing an increase of nearly 4 calls per day for the 13 communities they serve in Sullivan County. Since October, call volume has surged 33 percent, about half in the COVID-19 hot spot of Claremont alone.

The required disinfecting protocols is also taking a toll on ambulance equipment. Girard said he’s noticed that the chlorine-like wash they spray the vehicle interiors with is having a corrosive effect on materials.

“We just noticed it recently,” he said. “It’s eating plastic.”

Not all Upper Valley towns are experiencing a higher volume of ambulance calls related to COVID-19, however. Hanover Fire Chief Martin McMillan said his department’s annual tally of about 911 calls for both fire and ambulance is down this year, which he thinks is directly related to the pandemic-related absence of many Dartmouth students for much of the year.

“A lot of our business is driven by population and when your single biggest population is college kids who have left we have not seen a really big push in COVID-19,” he said.

McMillan pointed out that the delta variant also began to “break loose” in the Upper Valley after Dartmouth students left for their extended winter break at Thanksgiving.

“We’ve been very fortunate in that regard,” he said, adding that he realizes that could be fleeting and may well change once students return to campus next month. “I’m holding my breath.”

CDC shortens COVID-19 isolation time with omicron cases surging

People who have COVID-19 can leave isolation after five days if they are no longer experiencing symptoms, U.S. health officials said, cutting the previously recommended period in half as the omicron variant spurs a jump in infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement Monday that following the initial five-day isolation period, people with COVID-19 should wear a mask for another five days when around other people. The new guidance supplants previous recommendations that said people who have tested positive for the virus should isolate for 10 days.

COVID-19 cases are expected to soar in the U.S. following the holidays, threatening to upend the lives of workers and students who are infected or exposed to the virus. Shorter isolation and quarantine periods will allow people to return to work or to school sooner, potentially helping reduce widespread disruptions that could close schools or snarl supply chains.

Studies suggesting that illness caused by omicron isn’t as severe, especially for people who have been vaccinated and received booster shots, has increased pressure on public-health officials to ease their stance on when infected or exposed people can return to their routines.

Last week, the CDC shortened its isolation guidance for health care workers, saying those with mild or moderate COVID-19 could return to work after seven days with a negative antigen test.

“This is terrific — consistent with the evidence and data for contagiousness,” tweeted Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, who previously called for a shorter isolation period paired with a negative COVID-19 test. “And exactly what our country needs right now.”

The CDC’s shift in guidance was motivated by science showing that the majority of coronavirus transmission occurs early in the course of the illness, in the first day or two before the onset of symptoms and the two to three days that follow, the agency said.

The CDC also updated its recommended quarantine period for people who have been exposed to COVID-19. For individuals who are unvaccinated, or for those who are eligible for a booster shot but haven’t yet received one, the agency recommends a five-day quarantine followed by strict use of a mask for five more days.

However, if a five-day quarantine isn’t feasible, an exposed person should wear a well-fitting mask, such as an N95, at all times when around others for 10 days after exposure.

Individuals who have received a booster shot don’t need to quarantine following an exposure, but should wear a mask for 10 days, the CDC said. If symptoms occur, individuals should quarantine until a negative test confirms that they don’t have COVID-19.

The Biden administration has recently been pushing to get booster shots into the arms of more vaccinated people, and the new guidance could entice more Americans to seek another dose of a vaccine. Just under one-third of fully vaccinated people in the U.S. have received a booster, according to the CDC.