The Bulletin Board

Study finds that local roots of state legislators are weakening 

By: - August 15, 2023 12:53 pm

New Hampshire is set apart by its ultra-local Legislature, which includes one House representative for every 3,300 to 3,500 people in the state. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

A new study published in the New England Journal of Political Science finds that newer generations of New Hampshire legislators were less likely during the last decade to bring in local experience, like participation in civic groups or local government, to the state Legislature. It highlights a “general picture of decline in prior activity among new legislators” across party lines and for both men and women. 

Co-authored by University of New Hampshire professor of political science Dante Scala and UNH alum Mitchell Scacchi, a policy analyst at the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, the report analyzed biographical information about New Hampshire state legislators. 

The data was sourced from 2001-2021 “blue books,” also called “The Handbook of New Hampshire Elected Officials.” For profiles lacking in thorough biographical data, researchers utilized the New Hampshire General Court’s website and local media sources.

New Hampshire is set apart by its ultra-local Legislature, which includes one House representative for every 3,300 to 3,500 people in the state. In the past, these legislators have been deeply involved community members, bringing to the table experiences in local government, volunteering, and activism. Scala and Scacchi do not draw any conclusions about how changes in the local participation of lawmakers have shaped legislative outcomes, but suggest it has likely had an impact. 

In their conclusion, they write: “If we take it that legislators’ backgrounds, at least in part, inform their political opinions and policy preferences, then the general decline in local governing and civic experience among new members of the New Hampshire House may have had an effect on the type of legislation coming out of the New Hampshire General Court.” 

One previous study suggests that state legislators without local government experience are less likely to advocate for the interests of local government than those who previously served in city or county-level government. 

Scala and Scacchi’s research finds that new New Hampshire legislators were less likely to have experience in local government, charitable, civic, or community organizations, or advocacy groups. 

A large minority of legislators over the past two decades, an average of 47 percent, entered the Legislature with experience in local government. However, this number declines by 14 percent when comparing the most recent decade, 2013-2021, to 2001-2011. 

Past participation in charitable, civic, or community organizations also declined, by 29 percent. The greatest drop during the past decade was seen in advocacy experience. The average proportion of new legislators with an advocacy background reaches just 14 percent, a 62 percent decline from the decade prior. 

Scala said the findings pose several questions that warrant further research. He hopes to learn what is motivating newer legislators to involve themselves in state politics, if not previous local experience. 

“Once upon a time the state Legislature was just another stepping stone in kind of your service to your community,” he said. “[We’re wondering] whether now . . . people are being motivated more from the top down . . . hearing about politics at the national level, they want to get involved and so they’ve jumped into the state Legislature.” 

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Amanda Pirani
Amanda Pirani

Amanda was a newsroom intern with the New Hampshire Bulletin. She previously worked as a news editor for The New Hampshire, the University of New Hampshire’s student-run newspaper. While there, she reported on campus affairs, politics, and public health. A New Hampshire native, Amanda has learned to appreciate the unique political culture of her home state and brings experience from political campaigns. She plans to continue her degree in political science as a rising junior at the University of Michigan.