Beginning with George Washington in 1796, elected officials have a tradition of warning voters of a partisan apocalypse. In his farewell address, Washington said political parties would enable “cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men” to destroy democracy.
Gov. Chris Sununu echoed that sentiment in his 2019 inaugural address when he said NH must “rise above negativity and partisanship.”
(Of course, Democrats don’t see Sununu as a bipartisan leader. After the governor’s 2019 budget address, House Majority Leader Doug Ley said, “For a speech that was billed by him to be above partisanship, it was one of the most highly partisan budget speeches I’ve heard.”)
Since then, the NH Legislature has been embroiled in contentious battles, including a budget standoff and a record number of gubernatorial vetoes, and a number of votes to override vetoes. And data reveals that party divisions are deeper than ever in both the House and Senate.
There are many different ways to measure partisanship and political polarization, but arguably the most well-known is the “party unity” measure from Congressional Quarterly. Party unity is the percentage of votes in each legislative session in which a majority of one party opposes a majority of the other party. This reflects how often legislators draw a sharp line in the sand based on party, with few legislators crossing party lines.
In the past 20 years, party unity has fluctuated in the NH House of Representatives and Senate, with some clear highs and lows. When looking at the roll-call votes from January through September, party unity reached a 20-year high of 90% in the House of Representatives; meaning during the 2019 House session, nine out of 10 times representatives voted based on party.
While the divide is less severe in the NH Senate, partisanship is on the rise there as well. From January through April, Senate party unity was 65%, though when recalculated through September, party unity rose to 76%. That suggests votes became more contentious in the Senate this spring. The last time Senate party unity was close to that high was in 2011, at 73%.
The Role of Roll Call Votes
Party unity is based solely on one type of voting: roll-call votes. In a roll call, each legislator’s “yea” or “nay” is recorded with their name. There are also division votes, where votes are recorded without names, and voice votes, where legislators in a group say “yea” or “nay” and the loudest side wins.
Generally speaking, less controversial bills with bipartisan agreement don’t get roll-call votes. In fact, less than one quarter of bills voted on in the House and Senate get them. Because the party unity measure only includes roll-call votes, it does not capture how many bills pass with bipartisan agreement, particularly through voice votes.
However, data shows that over time, a larger share of bills in both the House and Senate are getting roll-call votes. On average from 1999 through 2018, in each two-year legislative session, 14% of bills voted on in the House and 16% of those in the Senate had a roll call. In 2019, 23% of bills voted on in the House as well as the Senate had a roll call.
The growing share of bills with roll-call votes suggests that voting is getting more contentious and it echoes results of the party unity measure.
There are dozens of factors that likely influence partisanship in the Legislature. Overall the Senate may be less partisan than the House because it is a smaller body, and each senator represents a large number of citizens spanning a broad political spectrum. In the NH House, each representative has a small constituency—just over 3,000—so they don’t have to appeal to as broad a group of voters.
It is also possible the House has a higher party-unity score because representatives often have less political experience than senators and certainly fewer staff to help them process bills. This lack of resources may lead them to rely more heavily on party guidance when deciding how to vote.
It’s also possible that increased partisanship at the national level might trickle down to state legislatures. For example, House and Senate party unity was high in 2011. This immediately followed the start of the national Tea Party movement, including the election of Bill O’Brien as Speaker of the House.
Broader economic trends or when both parties are more evenly represented affects bipartisanship. Party unity was low in the House and Senate in 2000. This was a time of economic prosperity, and there was an even balance of political power in NH’s government. Democrat Jeanne Shaheen served in the governor’s office, Republicans controlled the House and the Senate was split down the middle.
So does one party’s leadership tend to inflame partisanship? Over the past 20 years in the NH House of Representatives, party unity has tended to be higher when Democrats hold a majority of seats. On average, party unity was 82% when Democrats held a majority and 68% when Republicans held a majority.
However, that may reflect competitiveness more than party agendas. Whenever Republicans held a majority, it tended to be a large majority—on average, 63% of the seats. When Democrats held a majority, it tended to be smaller—on average, 57% of the seats. Party unity may have been higher during Democratic majorities because there was a narrower gap between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats would have to corral members to pass bills.
The NH Senate shows the opposite trend. Over the same period, party unity tended to be higher when Republicans held a majority. On average, party unity was 60% with Democratic majorities and 64% with Republican majorities. (The Senate was evenly split in 2000, so that year is excluded from averages.). Senate party unity peaked during the biggest Republican majorities: in 2003, Republicans had a 75% majority and in 2011, Republicans had a 79% majority.
Volume of Work
New Hampshire legislators have to attend committee meetings, vote on hundreds of bills and pass a budget several thousand pages long—all within six months. When the volume of that work increases, do legislators rely more on party leaders when deciding to vote? It seems the answer is generally yes, at least in the House.
Every two-year session, representatives introduce about 1,250 bills and senators introduce about 450.
Prior to the 2013-2014 legislative session, party unity was almost always higher in the first year of the session, in both the House and Senate. However, that trend flipped in 2014. One possible reason: Medicaid expansion, which was first authorized in 2014 after a year of hot debate. That started a tradition of revisiting the program in non-budget years.
Perhaps those Medicaid debates set a more partisan tone.
In the House there also seems to be a small relationship between the number of bills and party unity, with higher party unity in years with more bills. House sessions with fewer than 1,200 bills had an average party unity of 69% each biennium.
House sessions with 1,200 to 1,300 bills had an average party unity of 73%. House sessions with more than 1,300 bills had an average party unity of 74%. This makes sense if representatives are overwhelmed by the number of bills and look more to their party for advice on how to vote. There was not any clear relationship between the number of bills and party unity in the Senate, however.
Are state legislators influenced by partisanship at the federal level? From 1999 through 2010, the NH House of Representatives had much higher party unity than the U.S. House of Representatives. Since then, party unity in NH has been close to the federal level. It’s still too early to conclude if that trend is changing at the federal level, since federal voting continues through the year. Some analysts are betting partisanship in the U.S. House will increase again in 2019.
On the other hand, the NH Senate is arguably not much more partisan than the U.S. Senate. With the notable exceptions of 2010 and 2011, the NH Senate and U.S. Senate have often seen similar party unity scores over the past two decades.
Neither has become much more partisan over the past two decades.
Is Partisanship Hurting NH?
Despite George Washington’s warnings, partisanship is not necessarily terrible for democracy. Whenever political parties disagree on an issue, it gives voters a clear choice. There is some evidence that a strong partisan divide increases voter turnout. After all, there was record high turnout for the 2018 midterm elections, when partisanship was high.
Also, the increase in partisanship in the NH House is not inevitable. If voters are suspicious of partisanship, they can elect officials committed to bipartisanship. They can also influence how their legislators vote by attending public hearings, writing letters, calling and encouraging other voters to do the same.
Anna Brown is director of research and analysis with Citizens Count, a nonprofit that provides NH citizens with objective information about issues and candidates. Visit citizenscount.org.