Protecting NH’s First In The Nation primary matters to our democracy

Protecting NH’s First In The Nation primary matters to our democracy

By Colin Van Ostern

A friend asked me this weekend why I feel so strongly about protecting New Hampshire’s First-In-The-Nation presidential primary.

The answer for me is that the primary isn’t just valuable to New Hampshire; much more importantly, it’s invaluable to our American democracy.

Of course, protecting the primary is not optional; New Hampshire state law requires that every four years, our Secretary of State schedule the primary at least seven days before any other similar election. But I believe this tradition deserves true passion, too.

For me, that passion is personal: I built my life and family here in New Hampshire in part thanks to the primary (albeit, indirectly). When I moved to New Hampshire nearly twenty years ago, I didn’t know a soul north of Boston but I knew that New Hampshire had a reputation of doing democracy better than anyone else. I arrived at the age of 22 to work in politics here, then found my way to business school at Dartmouth and moved on to help some great employers grow in the private sector. But it was the very month I moved to Concord, back in 2001, that I met my wife Kristyn. We eventually fell in love, started a family, and we now are raising two native Granite State boys.

When Kristyn and I were married a decade ago, we held our wedding in Dixville Notch, the site of the first votes cast in the nation every four years (at 12:01am during each primary). We chose the spot to honor both her family’s North Country roots and our shared love for NH’s political history.

New Hampshire’s First In The Nation primary is proven, it’s powerful, and it’s here because of the people of our state — not a political party.We must always, and will always, ensure an ironclad adherence to our primary regardless of national politics. The primary’s unique, irreplaceable contributions to our democracy are why our state protects it without compromise — ahead of politics and political parties.

New Hampshire first earned the primary by moving our candidate nomination process out of the backrooms and into the voting booths 102 years ago — while for decades thereafter, other states continued to rely on party bosses instead of the people. The day I announced my plans to run for Secretary of State of New Hampshire earlier this year, I read from a century-old Boston Herald article about the first New Hampshire primary:

“The idea of the primary was to give everybody an equal chance, and the poor man a better chance than anybody else. Bosses were to be eliminated…and the old convention system would pass away and carry with it all the bribery, proxy-swapping, ward-yellow-dog corruption, and injustice.”

It worked — and I’ve seen the democratizing power of our primary over and over again.

I’ll never forget talking with Manchester Chief of Police Nick Willard about how he used the personal connection he forged with Donald Trump to elevate the opioid crisis in the mind of the future President. Or listening to Hillary Clinton hold back tears when a grandma at the Rochester YMCA explained that she needed help as a caregiver for her granddaughter, because that same drug crisis had claimed the young girl’s mom. And for twenty years I’ve watched lesser men try to copy John McCain’s bus tours and town hall meetings but still so often miss the point: it’s not the campaign tactics that matter, but rather the character that voters see underneath.

New Hampshire voters force candidates to hear directly from everyday people in a way that happens too rarely elsewhere in our national politics.

The love and lore of the primary runs deep in our family at home. A tattered copy of Sue Casey’s 1986 “Heart & Soul” (about the ’84 Hart campaign) sits next to a record player in our living room today, the cover torn-off and the title page signed by campaign volunteers who handed it down from one generation to the next like a family heirloom. Friends recount stories from the Straight Talk Express and the Dover Elks Club at kids’ birthday parties and christenings like they are a family history.

That final week before the New Hampshire primary, when anything can happen, is a particular source of stories passed down over the years. The world watches our town hall meetings; everyday citizens can force an extra debate over the objections of party officials; national candidates often summon a previously unseen well of perseverance or resort to dirty tricks or crumble under the pressure. Every stop gives the American people a new insight into character that no airport rally, or slickly-produced national debate, or made-for-TV convention can ever reveal.

But the primary’s power comes not just from the national spotlight, but rather from the culture built here over decades. That power is fueled by the engaged citizen who brings their kids to see presidential candidates speak, and who teaches them to treat both long-shots and front-runners with the same respect and skepticism. Our primary’s soul is the voters who turn out in high numbers year after year — some of the highest turnout numbers in the nation — and who regularly defy establishment endorsements and re-confirm our independent-minded reputation. This “people power” manifests in many ways, from our uniquely engaged citizens to our nation-leading representation of women in the highest seats of government.

This powerful tradition cannot be created overnight. It is the product of decades of town meetings every spring; it is the legacy of thousands of citizen-legislators who have served in one of the world’s largest volunteer legislative chambers; it is the offspring of generations of undeclared voters who can vote in whichever party’s primary captures their passion each year; and it is the cumulative weight of cycle after cycle of new same-day registrants whose first vote was inspired by a presidential candidate they met who once captured their hopes.

There are many policies and procedures that I’ve disagreed with 42-year incumbent Secretary of State Bill Gardner on in recent years. But his protection of the primary has been a model for every future Secretary of State to follow for decades to come, as our state law now requires. As Secretary Gardner explained back when then-DNC chair Howard Dean threatened the primary after losing it in 2004, New Hampshire wasn’t given the primary, nor will it be given to us in the future. It grew here, organically, he said: “This primary won’t be taken away from us by external forces.” He was right.

Of course, just as outside forces question the primary every four or eight years, so too, do New Hampshire politicos sometimes use fake threats to the primary status as a short-sighted wedge to push a pet issue they want to advance for other reasons. The tactics are as equally futile as the occasional national threats, because the primary’s power doesn’t come from party politics or backrooms: it comes from the voters, it is enshrined in our law, and it is vital to American democracy.

Today, in 2018, our democracy is under under real attacks from political, corporate, and even foreign interests of all stripes. In order to live up to the primary’s original people-powered purpose for a second century, we need to bring the passion that so many of us feel for our heritage to the task of strengthening key elements of our New Hampshire democracy.

This includes better supporting the authority of our local election officials and adding modern safeguards like random hand-count audits of our machine-counted ballots or replacement of the oldest machines (which today count 89.2% of all ballots cast). It means increasing legislative oversight & transparency in the Secretary of State’s office; considering reforms like replacing a politically-appointed Deputy Secretary role with a nonpartisan Director of Elections; modernizing our voter list and web security; and setting a national example by drawing districts in a nonpartisan manner that puts communities first instead of party politics. In many ways, New Hampshire bears a responsibility to protect our free & fair elections that extends far beyond our state’s small size.

The primary is good for New Hampshire, but it is great — and irreplaceable — for American democracy. We must continue it for generations to come.