It would be ironic indeed if in the wake of long-serving Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s retirement the Legislature were to act favorably on a bill that would imperil what’s regarded as his greatest legacy — protecting New Hampshire’s place at the head of the presidential primary line.
Even beyond irony, the proposed measure’s effort to fix what ain’t broken would be pure folly and bad for the state’s democratic process.
The legislation, House Bill 1166, is sponsored by Rep. David Love of Derry with three fellow Republicans and aims to prevent undeclared voters from participating in state primary elections. For many years, New Hampshire law has permitted undeclared voters to pick a party at the polls on primary day and then to revert to unaffiliated status after voting in that party’s primary.
That process has served the state well, increasingly so as over time more and more voters have opted not to join a party. Now, independents outnumber those registered in any party, and their ability to express a preference among a party’s slate of primary candidates has become an important way to gauge a nominee’s appeal to a broader cross-section of voters.
As for the crown jewel of the state’s primaries — the quadrennial presidential primary — the state has been able to hang on to its first-in-the-nation slot in large measure because undeclared voters can participate. The primary is typically criticized for giving outsized importance in setting the presidential campaign agenda to a rural New England state whose population is so demographically unrepresentative of the nation’s. Gardner has made a career and his reputation by fending off challenges to New Hampshire’s lead-off role, and a significant — and telling — arrow in his quiver has been that the primary puts candidates who might otherwise seem favored among their party’s voters through the crucible of demonstrating appeal to engaged and informed independents who are crucial to success in a general election. Particularly coming directly after the uber-partisan Iowa caucuses, it provides the initial indication of whether candidates can draw from the center, or even reach voters in opposing parties.
Now comes Love and his co-sponsors with HB 1166, proposing to turn New Hampshire back into a closed-primary state that requires unaffiliated voters to join a party well in advance of the primary — in HB 1166’s case 120 days beforehand. If there’s anything this state doesn’t need in these increasingly divisive times, it’s a primary system overhaul that will ensure general elections are contests between candidates favored only by party activists and extremists and who have no incentive to appeal to the now largest voting bloc, independents. And good luck to Gardner’s successor and other state officials in trying to articulate a case for why the nation is better served with a leadoff primary that promotes only candidates who play inside-party baseball.
Love argues that changing to a closed primary is warranted because the current system enables “spoiler” voters from participating in one party’s primary to skew results in favor of the other. As in the case of other so-called election reforms put forth recently whose backers have claimed to see voter fraud where none exists, there’s been no evidence to back up Love’s concern. Indeed, if any reform were to be considered, it should be to adopt a fully open primary with the top two vote-getters moving on to the general election, regardless of their party. As noted in a Granite State News Collaborative article last week, recent studies suggest that those states having such open primaries have seen the election of lawmakers that are less ideologically extreme and have broader voter appeal.
As Concord legislators consider how best they might honor Bill Gardner and his long tenure as secretary of state, there would be no better tribute than to quickly kill HB 1166 and its ill-advised threat to voter participation in the state’s electoral process and its presidential preference primary.