Push to modify the NH primary to prevent spoiler votes

Undeclared voters have had a way to get in and vote in the New Hampshire primary elections for over 100 years, but a bill would change that.

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

This would end the long tradition of having semi-closed primaries in New Hampshire – a hybrid type of primary in which previously undeclared voters can participate in the partisan primary of their choice.

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

“There are 14 other states that closed the primaries and that’s basically what this bill will do,” said Love, a Republican from Derry.

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

“I don’t think that’s what our founders had in mind when they crafted the language of 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 was little evidence that there was an organized effort to get members of another party to vote in the primary of a another party that has an impact on who actually wins the primary.

He added that New Hampshire state primaries typically have a low turnout – around 15-20%.

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

Closed vs open primary

In addition to protecting against possible parasitic votes from political opponents, the basic premise of closed primaries is that they give parties more control over their own elections.

Smith said the democratization of the nomination process, which began in the late 1800s, was aimed at weakening the power of political parties.

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

The argument for open primaries is that elections become more democratic – anyone can vote in any primary.

Smith added that there is one stage that’s even more open than that: a single-round primary, where Republicans and Democrats are cast on the same ballot in the primary, and the top two candidates come together. face in general elections.

California, Louisiana, and Washington both have early primary systems, and such primaries could produce less extreme lawmakers, a to study from the University of Southern California suggests.

Research from 2020 found that lawmakers elected in states with the first two primaries are “less likely to vote ideological extremes on legislation” because 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 has emphasized over time to justify why the state should have the nation’s first presidential primary. .

“Having a closed primary would definitely weaken any argument New Hampshire might make about why they should have the first primary,” Smith said. “It’s a small, white, wealthy New England state. Why on earth should they be the first to decide who the candidate will be? Well, the people of New Hampshire can point their fingers at these things which are little democratic things that make the state different.

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

It is because so many New Hampshire voters preferred not to be declared that the state’s electoral law was changed to make it easier to keep the registration as unreported after voting in one of the primaries. gone, Smith said.

The participation rate

Overall, researchers disagree on whether closed primaries have an impact on voter turnout; but, it seems 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, a researcher found that there was no difference in voter turnout between the 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% compared to closed primaries.

“Contests that allow voters to choose which party ballot they want to participate in increase the turnout, on average, by 1.5%, but semi-closed primaries have a lower turnout, on average, of 2%. , 1% “, according to the authors,” Perhaps modified the open primaries do not result in a higher turnout because many independents do not know they can participate or do not want to declare allegiance to a party and modify their registration on the electoral rolls. “

A close 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 primaries.

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

However, the researchers warn that the effect was mild. “So greater inclusion appears to lead to higher turnout, but the effect is not overwhelming.”

Change of party affiliation

Among the 14 states with 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’s.

With closed and semi-closed primaries, voters looking to change their partisanship usually have to change their affiliation before candidates run.

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

Currently, a voter who wishes to change affiliation must do so by the first Wednesday in June before the election for the state primary election, and the day candidates can apply for the presidential primary.

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

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

In New Hampshire’s semi-closed system, undeclared voters choose which party to vote for on primary day – technically declaring their affiliation. While they vote, they are members of that party, Smith said.

A voter can become undeclared again by completing a form before leaving the polling station, but if he does not complete the form, he remains a member of the party.

If the Love Bill becomes law, this undeclared system would no longer be in place and only registered members of both parties could vote in each primary.

The bill would also require that if a candidate wishes to stand for either party, they must have been a member of that party for at least six months prior to the election.

Currently in New Hampshire, it is not mandatory to be a member of the party you are seeking nomination for, and this is something Smith said candidates take advantage of.

“A lot of state officials, in particular, are taking advantage of this in certain districts that are majority Republicans or majority Democrats, they will have their names on both ballots,” Smith said. “When they have a strong notoriety, they can win both the Republican ticket and the Democratic ticket, which means they will face each other in the general election.”

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

“It is a real shame that such a thing has to be done to keep the elections as they are meant to be,” he said.

The bill will soon arrive in 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 this passed, but it’s a topic that needs some discussion,” Love said.

GSNC Data Editor Johnny Bassett contributed to this report. These articles are being shared by The Granite State News Collaborative partners as part of our Race and Fairness Project. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.


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