Attendance matters in the House this session. Have some voters ‘lost their voice’?
In this session’s tightly divided House, lawmakers’ attendance has been more important than ever. (Beatrice Burack | New Hampshire Bulletin)
When Rep. Benjamin Bartlett, a Nottingham Republican, stepped down last week, margins in the House got even tighter: 200 Republicans to 196 Democrats.
With the House so closely divided, attendance this session has often played a major role in the fate of legislation. An attempted repeal of the state’s abortion ban failed in a tie. A proposal to limit homeschoolers’ use of school vouchers failed by two votes. The “parental rights” bill failed by one vote.
A large percentage of House members are consistently showing up to vote. According to analysis by the Bulletin and voter information nonprofit Citizens Count, average roll call vote participation this session hovers around 93 percent, the highest it’s been in at least 20 years. Just over 43 percent of members have voted in all roll call votes taken, while more than 77 percent have voted in at least 90 percent of votes.
But both parties have felt the sting of empty seats.
“This year, we have certainly seen that every seat counts. Every legislator who shows up can change policy in one direction or another,” Anna Brown, director of research and analysis at Citizens Count, told the Bulletin.
For Granite Staters whose representatives are consistently absent, she said, “those voters have lost their voice.”
Twenty-one House members have participated in fewer than 70 percent of votes, nine Republicans and 12 Democrats. Nine of those representatives have voted in fewer than half the votes. Before his resignation Bartlett had cast only a single vote.
Bartlett was the third member to resign this session, following Democrats Joshua Adjutant of Enfield and Stacie-Marie Laughton of Nashua.
Nashua, the state’s second largest city, has been uniquely affected by lawmaker absences this session.
Nashua Ward 4 down two voting reps
Ward 4 in Nashua currently has only a third of the representation it’s supposed to.
Laughton, who resigned in December of last year after being arrested on stalking charges, will be replaced in a special election this month. Her seat has sat empty since the session began in January.
David Cote, elected to one of the other two Ward 4 seats, has yet to be sworn in due to health concerns that he says prevent him from coming to the State House.
Cote stopped attending sessions when the pandemic hit in 2020 because his cerebral palsy and 2018 heart attack put him at risk for complications from COVID-19. He said in an email that he still sought re-election last year because he hoped a lawsuit he and other Democrats filed in 2021 to allow remote voting would be resolved in their favor.
“There is no reason whatsoever that the (House) speaker cannot make even the slightest accommodations to allow me to fulfill my duties as a legislator other than his desire to gain partisan advantage,” Cote said in an email. “I believe that it is critical to take a stand for all the disabled who should have the same rights to participate in democracy as any other citizen.”
Cote won his race but hasn’t assumed his seat because the case remains pending and remote participation is still not allowed in the House.
The 24-member New Hampshire Senate has allowed members to participate remotely when ill.
Israel Piedra, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, said he is waiting to hear how the U.S. District Court will rule on the state’s motion to dismiss it.
“I would expect any week now we’ll hear something,” Piedra said in an interview last week.
In response to questions about what they will do if the case is dismissed, Piedra told the Bulletin, “We haven’t thought that far ahead. It would certainly be challenging (to continue pursuing legal action against the state), but I don’t want to be definitive one way or another.”
It is unclear if Cote would resign his seat in the event that his case is dismissed.
Asked if he has considered resigning to open his seat for a person who can vote, Cote said his resignation now would have no effect on votes because there wouldn’t be time to elect and swear in his replacement by the end of the session in June.
Nashua Ward 5’s Dolan missing votes due to work
In nearby Nashua Ward 5, one of three elected House members has missed more votes than he’s attended.
Democratic Rep. William Dolan has participated in 23 percent of votes taken this session and four of the 11 meeting days held so far. Dolan is the only representative with less than 50 percent attendance to cite conflicts other than health and family concerns. He has the lowest attendance of any currently sworn-in member of the House.
Of the 104 votes Dolan missed, 55 were not excused, according to legislative records; those that were excused cited important business.
Dolan is an attorney and told the Bulletin that after being elected, he was “unexpectedly faced with the opportunity” to take on a heavier caseload.
“I had to weigh the ability to protect my clients’ civil liberties with my duties as a state representative,” he said.
Dolan said that he takes his “position representing (his constituents) at the State House very seriously” and he ran on a platform of protecting “a woman’s right to choose.”
Among the votes he missed was the proposed repeal of the state’s abortion ban that failed in a tie.
“To my (constituents), I will do better for you,” Dolan said.
Other frequently absent lawmakers cite family, health concerns
Besides Dolan and Cote, the seven other lawmakers who have voted in fewer than half of roll call votes all attributed their absences to personal or family health concerns.
Rep. Douglas Trottier, a Belmont Republican, said his 76 missed votes were due to a family emergency, but declined to elaborate.
Bartlett, the Nottingham Republican who resigned last week, attributed his poor attendance and subsequent resignation to health issues, but NHPR and the Boston Globe reported last week that his resignation may be related to a potential violation of federal law. The Globe reported that Bartlett works for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Under the Hatch Act, federal employees are restricted from running for partisan political office.
House Communications Director Jennifer Tramp said in an email that Bartlett’s “resignation letter will be read before the House on Thursday and will reflect that his health was his primary motivation for leaving office.” Bartlett did not respond to requests for comment on any potential violation of the Hatch Act.
Reps. William Hatch, a Gorham Democrat; John Lewicke, a Mason Republican; Trinidad Tellez, a Hooksett Democrat; James Mason, a Franklin Republican; and Kat McGhee, a Hollis Democrat, have all participated in less than 50 percent of the votes this session. They told the Bulletin that their extended absences were due to personal or family illnesses.
McGhee, who missed several days earlier this year due to lung cancer treatment, echoed Cote, saying more could be done to accommodate House members dealing with illness or other challenges.
“The House is failing to give people flexibility and modernize with technology in order for us to represent our constituents even when we’re having personal health issues that would prohibit us from physically being in the State House,” McGhee said in an interview.
If Democrats’ proposed measures allowing for remote participation and proxy voting had passed earlier this session, she said, lawmakers who face “health issues and other personal issues that are unavoidable” would have an easier time participating.
McGhee said she made an effort to keep up on committee work even when her health prevented her from attending the House in person. The work done in committee is also a significant portion of legislators’ responsibilities, but does not factor into roll call participation or session day attendance.
A need for system change?
Donna Sytek, who served as speaker of the House from 1996 to 2000, when Republicans held a distinct majority in the chamber, told the Bulletin that in a volunteer legislature, a certain number of absences are to be expected.
“It’s not unusual in a citizen legislature to have 40, 50 people who have other issues, other obligations” on session days, Sytek said.
When she was speaker, “You could still get your agenda through when you had the cushion of the 20 or so votes (that) could go the other way. But nowadays, you can’t afford to lose 20 votes. You can’t afford to lose two votes.”
With today’s close margins, she said, “attendance really matters.”
Lucas Meyer, co-founder of 603 Forward, a progressive advocacy group that encourages working-age New Hampshire residents to run for state office, said a closely divided House “has really put a magnifying glass” on the challenges faced by young legislators.
“If we truly wish to aspire to a volunteer legislature, and especially if we’re going to have margins as narrow as this, I think both parties and the folks in the State House need to be taking a real hard look at, ‘How do we modernize and make the functions of the State House more efficient?’”
Most of the lawmakers the Bulletin spoke with who have participated in fewer than half of roll call votes don’t attribute their absences to juggling multiple jobs or caring for young children.
“Health concerns are more of an issue” than child care, said Brown, of Citizens Count, because “we do have, on average, one of the oldest state legislatures in the nation.”
However, the demanding nature of the job and the limited support offered to working people and parents serving in the role may be impacting who runs for and wins House seats in the first place.
For “people who have children and (are) working age,” Sytek said, “historically it’s been difficult for them to serve. That’s why the Legislature is largely composed of retirees or people who are still living at home with their parents, people who have seasonal jobs.”
“But the times are changing,” Sytek said.
Meyer thinks that more young people would be able to serve in the Legislature if lawmakers had access to state child care services and could participate in some proceedings remotely. He also supports changing the House schedule so that hearings and session days align better with the schedules of working people.
“If we really want to have a citizen Legislature, we have to change how the building operates, because right now, on average, you have to be wealthy (and) retired” to serve, Meyer said.
The question remains if working people who have trouble making votes under the current system should be the ones representing their communities.
“Ultimately, it’s up to their employer, which is the voters of their district,” Meyer said.
Look up your lawmaker’s attendance
For an easy-to-access snapshot of how your representative fares on attendance and participation right now, you can search their name in the table below.
For further information on why your representative may have missed votes or been absent, you can find their information here and contact them directly.
For updated data as the session progresses, you can also track your representative’s attendance and voting record online.
- Find their name on the roster and click “voting record.” That will produce the representative’s position on every vote taken (135 so far).
- Missed votes are marked as “not voting/excused” or “not voting/not excused.” The first means the House member notified the House Clerk’s Office they would be absent for one of four reasons: illness, illness in the family, death in the family, or “important business,” which isn’t defined but typically includes work obligations. The latter means they did not call in to the clerk’s office.
If you have any questions about the process, you can call the House Clerk’s Office for more information.
The Bulletin used attendance and participation numbers provided by Citizens Count, a nonpartisan voter awareness organization. Citizens Count created a program that calculates attendance and voting records using information data from the Legislature’s website.
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