Voter Apathy in New Hampshire

First in the Nation only matters if we vote



Illustration by Peter Noonan

Next month most of the state’s largest communities will hold elections for mayor, city council and school board. No matter the city or even the state, municipal elections are largely about the three most visceral issues in public policy: taxes, crime and schools.

This year, however, there is one overarching issue on the ballot. The issue is apathy.

Most cities won’t have competitive elections for mayor this year. In the state’s largest city, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas is facing his third non-competitive election in a row. His main opponent, Alderman Patrick Arnold, has raised just a fraction of campaign money Gatsas has and Arnold needs that money to overcome the gap of most voters not knowing who he is or what he stands for. The third candidate for Manchester mayor is a gadfly.

The situation isn’t much different in other parts of the state. No one appears to be stepping up to make competitive elections in Concord, Keene, Franklin and Berlin. Portsmouth has a quirky system where candidates run for nine city-wide council seats and the top vote-getter is mayor. This year local observers expect about 12 people to file for those spots. Nashua doesn’t have a race for mayor this year, but when Mayor Donnalee Lozeau was up for re-election two years ago she was unopposed.

"Turnout in local elections is historically low to begin with. This year, records could be set."

Dover and Laconia are expected to have spirited races for mayor, but they are the exceptions to the rule.

The real troubling part is that no one is expected to vote either. Turnout in local elections is historically low to begin with, but this year records could be set on low voter turnout. It doesn’t help that local newspapers have laid off dozens of reporters in the last decade.

Often the national media look to local elections in the off-year for some type of voter sentiment. They were able to gauge antipathy with George W. Bush in elections in 2005, especially after the Iraq War began to go badly and following Hurricane Katrina. There were also signs of a Republican comeback in 2009 when GOP governors were elected in New Jersey and Virginia, and when Scott Brown was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts months later. The lesson of the 2013 election might be that voters are just throwing their hands in the air and giving up.

Look at who might be on the ballot next year for major office and you’ll see the same old names. In the First Congressional District a Republican candidate whom voters kicked out of office last year will likely face off against a Democratic incumbent these same voters rejected in 2010.

New Hampshire voters might be concluding that it really doesn’t matter who wins or loses, and they are better off completing an errand than taking 15 minutes to vote. Such lack of civic participation at the local level could also force Granite Staters to re-examine their identity.

Town meetings and local political participation are part of the state’s international brand. Unless voters speak up or candidates figure out how to get voters excited, we could be losing something precious. 

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