Bill would increase signature threshold, filing fees for state primary candidates

By: - January 12, 2023 6:30 am

Republican Rep. Joe Sweeney of Salem speaks to the House Election Law Committee in favor of a bill to increase the requirements necessary to run for federal office or governor in New Hampshire on Jan 10, 2023. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

A trio of Republican House lawmakers are pushing to raise the entry requirements for candidates in New Hampshire party primaries, requiring significantly more money or signatures to get onto a primary ballot.

But the measure has attracted opposition from other Republicans and Democrats, who argued this week that it will prevent less well-resourced candidates from competing. 

House Bill 116 would raise the number of signatures required in order to appear on a primary ballot for governor, U.S. senator, or U.S. representative, and increase the filing fee for candidates.

Currently, a candidate for governor or U.S. senator must pay $100 or present 200 signatures to appear on a primary ballot; HB 116 would raise the fee to $10,000 or require the collection of 25,000 signatures. 

And while a candidate for U.S. representative must now pay $50 or present 100 signatures, the bill would raise that fee to $5,000 or require 12,500 signatures. 

Republican Rep. Joe Sweeney of Salem, the bill’s sponsor, said the proposed thresholds are intended to increase the quality and dedication of candidates. 

“We can still have 10 people running in a primary; we can still have 20 people running in a primary,” he said at a hearing for the bill Tuesday. “They would just have to put the effort in to get the privilege of being on the ballot.”

The proposal has attracted the ire of Libertarians, who say it will make it harder to compete against the more established parties. 

Under the bill as introduced, the increased fees would also apply to third-party candidates who don’t compete in primaries. Third-party and independent candidates already must collect signatures in order to make it onto the general election ballot – 1,500 signatures in each congressional district for U.S. Senate candidates. But the bill would raise the filing fees to the new amounts as well. 

A Libertarian candidate for governor who skips the Democratic and Republican primaries and competes in the general election would need to pay $10,000 rather than $100, for instance. 

The bill’s sponsors say that is unintentional. Sweeney said that the bill is meant only for candidates in primaries; in a phone call, he said the sponsors are working on an amendment to exclude third-party candidates from the new fees. 

Some candidates who competed last year say they’re opposed to the change.

“I think that it is a bad idea,” said Bruce Fenton, a libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate in 2022 who took fifth place in the Republican primary, in a comment to the Bulletin. “We should make politics easier and more accessible, not harder or reserved for the rich.” 

Jeremy Kauffman, a libertarian U.S. Senate candidate who ran on the general ballot, accused Republicans of playing politics. All three of the co-sponsors – Sweeney; Rep. Ross Berry, a Manchester Republican; and Rep. Joe Alexander, a Goffstown Republican – have worked as officials in the New Hampshire Republican Party in recent years. 

“The Sununu faction of the GOP hates how many libertarians are now winning in the GOP, so they strike out where they can,” he said in a Twitter message. “It’s just typical petty politics.”

Democrats, meanwhile, portrayed the bill as an effort to protect Gov. Chris Sununu from being embarrassed in state primaries by fringe candidates who might pull the New Hampshire Republican Party to the right if elected. 

Rep. Matt Wilhelm, the House Democratic leader, said the bill “runs counter to the way we do democracy in New Hampshire,” arguing that New Hampshire’s brand of politics is driven by lesser-known candidates having the chance to break through. 

But Sweeney says the effort is not motivated by partisan gamesmanship, but rather a necessity to attract high-quality candidates. The bill would reduce the number of candidates on a primary ballot to only the ones who were serious enough to compete, he said, making the selection easier for voters, too.

“For someone to be able to pay just a nominal fee or submit a relative handful of petitions and get their name printed on every September primary ballot for their party detracts from the process and only adds to voter confusion when they get to the ballot box,” he argued. Having a dozen names in a primary – some of whom were not present in debates – can overwhelm voters, Sweeney argued. 

Sweeney also argued that the higher thresholds would prevent candidates from simply paying the $50 or $100 entry out of their own pocket to run a long-shot campaign with no political support. A $10,000 entry fee would require most candidates to build a base of supporters and fundraise before entering, he said. 

And he said that the option to collect signatures instead of raising money would give potential candidates the experience they need to actually run a statewide campaign by requiring them to find thousands of voters who would support them in the future. 

“It is a privilege to be placed on the ballot for consideration by a respected political party in our state primary elections,” Sweeney said. 

While the bill raises the filing fee for federal and gubernatorial candidates, it would eliminate the fee for state House candidates.  That fee is currently $2.

Sweeney and Berry stressed that the number of signatures and fees required could be changed throughout the session, and that the bill as presented was just a starting proposal. But they argued that some increase in the threshold was better than none. 

Not all in the Republican Party agree. 

“This is not an increase that matches inflation and appears designed to favor rich candidates,” said Rep. Alvin See, a Loudon Republican. “That may not be the intent, but it is an appearance.”

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

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