In more ways than one, it’s been a historic year for New Hampshire politics.
A slew of political candidates and incumbents visited Durham, and many – such as democratic Sen. Ed Markey, Rep. Ilhan Omar, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Chris Pappas – held student voting events and campaigned for President Joe Biden at the Freedom Cafe. The New Hampshire published several voting guides and voter education tutorials, working on our student voter education initiatives. The 2020 election was widely discussed on the national level, but the state and local elections had their own fair share of excitement, as well.
For the first time since the Civil War, the New Hampshire House met outside of Representatives Hall in Concord. Convening at the Whittemore Center, this one-day legislative session focused on COVID-related bills and policies. “I think it’s wonderful. I’m very proud of the New Hampshire House, that they have overcome what seemed to be an insoluble problem – of getting a place where 400 people could get together, respecting social distancing – I just didn’t think it was going to be possible… And of course, that my very own University of New Hampshire was able to solve the problem, makes me feel even prouder,” said Rep. Judith Spang (Strafford 6).
The Sept. 8 New Hampshire State Primary Elections saw record-breaking turnout in Durham despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Over 2,672 votes were cast – both on Election Day and via absentee ballot. This was over twice the typical turnout numbers in Durham from previous elections in 2008 through 2016. One of the key races to watch was the gubernatorial primary between Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky and State Sen. Dan Feltes. Volinsky won Durham, but Feltes took the nomination and went on to challenge incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu. Additionally, Matt Mowers took the Republican nomination for House District 1, and Corky Mesner went on to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen for her seat. The incumbents in each of these races easily won their respective primaries.
In mid-September, the New Hampshire House once again utilized UNH’s Whittemore Center Arena to hold a special legislative session. Despite the town of Durham and UNH’s mask-wearing policies, quite a few representatives refused to wear a mask. Since the House follows Embassy Rules, the town and university’s mask policies were unenforceable. Some House members believed Durham’s ordinance to have zero legal standing. “You have a choice provided by your constitution to exercise free will, this cannot be overstepped by any law, Any and all attempts to violate your freedoms are in fact illegal. There are no exceptions. The Constitution strictly states that no law shall be made to overstep personal freedoms and any law subject to violation of the constitution shall be null and void and shall be deemed illegal,” said Rep. William Fowler (R-Rockingham).
However, the drama didn’t end there. Empty beer cans were confirmed to have been found in the Whittemore Center following the legislative session.
“I also want to also take a moment and apologize for the actions of some of our members taken at yesterday’s session. It came to my attention that some of the members were drinking beer in the hall and that some members were outside of the Whittemore Center, without masks, against both UNH and Durham protocol and ordinances. Please know that the House takes decorum very seriously and the actions of a few do not represent the New Hampshire House of Representatives as a whole,” said then-House Speaker Steve Shurtleff (D-Penacook).
2020 General Election
The 2020 election was incredibly interesting to cover as a student news organization. Disinformation was rampant, the news was constantly evolving, and COVID-19 added an extra layer of difficulty. One of our biggest projects – including editors, staff, and contributors – were our “Meet the Candidates” profiles. In these brief profiles, we interviewed candidates up and down the ballot – from gubernatorial candidates, to Congressional races, to state legislature races, to Strafford County Sheriff. We aimed to educate students on who they were voting for, in order to make the most informed and productive choices for themselves. We hope this is something TNH carries on in future elections.
In terms of the 2020 General Election, the well-known New Hampshire politicians held their seats. Gov. Sununu, Sen. Shaheen, and Rep. Pappas each easily won their respective races. Each of the Strafford District 6 representatives – all Democrats – were easily reelected. Rebecca Perkins-Kwoka (District 21) was the first openly-LGBTQ woman elected to the state senate, and Mark Brave was the first Black man elected as Strafford County Sheriff. Cinde Warmington took the District 2 Executive Council seat over Republican Jim Beard. Several of our writers also wrote about students participating in voting and activism – including two UNH seniors who drove a COVID-safe “vote mobile” to-and-from the polls all day. Absentee voting was high, but overall voter turnout was lower than expected for this election.
New Hampshire’s purple state status did not disappoint in this election. While it voted blue for Biden, Pappas, Kuster, and Shaheen, Republicans took control of both state legislative chambers as well as the Executive Council, and Sununu held the governor’s office.
This election even saw a UNH student candidate throw his hat in the ring! 20-year-old Heath Howard ran as a Democrat in Strafford District 3, but lost in the general election. He was the youngest candidate in his race, and ran on a campaign focused on racial justice, affordable education and more issues impacting young people.
For our entire election issue, click here: https://tnhdigital.com/2020/11/05/issue-10-of-the-2020-21-academic-year/
The N.H. House held their Organization Day outside at UNH in December. However, over 100 members refused to attend due to COVID-19 concerns, mostly Democrats. Their concern came from a Nov. 20 caucus event in which many Republican representatives gathered maskless, and at least four positive COVID-19 cases had been traced to the event.
On Dec. 2, longtime Rep. Dick Hinch accepted the nomination of Speaker of the House. Only one week later, he tragically passed away at 71 due to the coronavirus. Hinch had served as both minority and majority leader. Sununu called Hinch’s passing a “tragic and cautionary tale.” He also had some strong words for members of the House who had been acting in opposition to COVID-19 safety precautions such as mask-wearing. “Please use your heads. Don’t act like a bunch of children, frankly,” he said.
Relatively frequently, a bill will be proposed in the N.H. House aiming to change or restrict student voting in some way. Throughout 2021, it has been HB86. It would effectively ban out-of-state college students from voting in New Hampshire, eliminate same-day voter registration, and close our primaries. Authors of the bill cite voter fraud as a reason for its implementation, and argue that residents of a state should be the ones deciding those issues. It should be noted that many UNH students spend nine to 12 months out of the year in Durham. HB86 was retained in committee on Feb. 18, meaning it will be worked on through the summer. State judges have previously struck down measures seeking to change voting laws in the state. For example, Senate Bill SB3 was dismissed in 2020 by a superior court judge on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and discriminatory.
According to the UNH Survey Center’s monthly Granite State Poll in early March, 72% of those polled approve of Sununu’s job as governor – 90% of Republicans, 78% of Independents, and 51% of Democrats. 71% approved of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Many have wondered if Sununu will challenge incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan for her U.S. Senate seat in 2022. Survey Center Director Andy Smith said 2022 is probably the best time for Sununu to wage a challenge. The UNH Survey Center is a great resource for anyone interested in anything related to New Hampshire, both political and non-political. The most recent Granite State Poll puts Sununu’s approval at 65%, a slight slip possibly due to his lifting of the statewide mask mandate.
There’s never a dull moment in the New Hampshire political scene. Both state legislative chambers have resources and lists on their website for tracking bills and watching the legislature in action. Follow bills, polls, and politicians that interest you, and get ready for the 2022 midterms – they’re right around the corner.
Photo courtesy of TNH.