Proposed legislation would close New Hampshire’s primary elections to undeclared voters

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A voter registration table at Ward 3 in Manchester. File Photo/Carol Robidoux


Undeclared voters have had a say in New Hampshire’s primary elections for over 100 years, but one bill would change that.

While the current system allows New Hampshire’s roughly 410,000 undeclared voters to decide on election day which party’s primary they want to vote in, HB 1166 would require voters to declare a party affiliation at least four months in advance. 

This would do away with the longstanding tradition of having New Hampshire primaries semi-closed — a hybrid type of primary in which previously undeclared voters can participate in the partisan primary of their choice. 

HB 1166 would restrict New Hampshire primaries to only allow members of each party to vote in their primary elections. This system, called a closed primary, is not uncommon, as bill sponsor Rep. David Love, R-Derry, pointed out.

“There’re 14 other states that have closed primaries and that is essentially what this bill will do,” Love said. 

One of Love’s central concerns with the semi-closed system is that there are no rules against undeclared voters from submitting spoiler votes in a primary to intentionally influence the outcome in favor of the opposite party.

“I don’t think that’s what our founders had in mind when they put together the language in the Constitution for elections, and I think it’s a good idea to stop it,” Love said.

Andrew Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said there is little evidence that there’s been an organized effort for members of a different party to vote in another party’s primary that has any impact on who actually wins the primary.

He added that the New Hampshire state primaries typically have a low turnout — about 15-20 percent.

“It’s one of those ‘what ifs’ in politics that people are always concerned about,” Smith said. “It’s hard enough to get people to vote, period, let alone organize them to muck around in the other party’s primary.”

Voters waiting to register at Ward 4 in Manchester in November 2014. FILE PHOTO/Carol Robidoux

Closed versus open primaries

In addition to protecting against potential spoiler votes from political opponents, the basic tenet behind closed primaries is that they grant parties more control over their own elections. 

Smith said the democratization of the nomination process, which started in the late 1800s, was designed to weaken the power of political parties. 

“Political parties don’t like open primaries. It’s a wild card,” Smith said. “They only want people who are members of their party voting in their primary, and that makes sense. If you’re a Republican, why would you want to have Democrats come over and mess around in your primary? You only want Republicans to choose who the Republican nominee is going to be, and the same is true for Democrats.”

The argument for open primaries is that the elections become more democratic — anybody can vote in any primary.

Smith added that there’s one step that’s even more open than that: a single ballot primary, where both Republicans and Democrats are listed on the same ballot in the primary, and the top two candidates face off against each other in the general election. 

California, Louisiana and Washington all have top-two primary systems, and such primaries could produce less extreme lawmakers, one study out of the University of Southern California suggests. 

The 2020 research found that lawmakers elected in states with top-two primaries are “less likely to cast extreme ideological votes on legislation” as candidates must appeal to a wide range of voters.

With New Hampshire’s semi-closed primaries falling between the two options, Smith said the system is one of the things Granite Staters have pointed to over time to justify why the state should have the first presidential primary in the country.

“Having a closed primary would certainly weaken the case that New Hampshire could make about why it should have the first primary,” Smith said. “It’s a small, white, wealthy state up in New England. Why the heck should they be first in line to decide who the nominee is going to be? Well, the people in New Hampshire can point to these things that are small ‘d’ democratic things that make the state different.”

The number of undeclared voters has grown more than twofold since the 1990s — from just over 200,000 in 1990 to nearly 410,000 in June 2021 — and they now outnumber both Republicans and Democrats. 

This is because so many New Hampshire voters preferred being undeclared that state election law was changed to make it easier to remain registered as undeclared after voting in one of the parties’ primaries, Smith said.

Voters register at the polls on general Election Day Nov. 4, 2014, in Manchester’s Ward 3. FILE PHOTO/Carol Robidoux

Closed primaries and voter turnout

Overall, researchers are not settled on the issue of whether closed primaries impact voter turnout; but, it appears that even though open primaries increase voter turnout compared to closed primaries, there is little difference in voter turnout between semi-closed and closed. 

Using data from 1980 to 2012, one researcher found that there is no difference in voter turnout between semi-closed and closed primaries. 

Using state and party-level data from 1972 to 2016, two American political scientists found that semi-closed primaries actually decrease voter turnout, on average, by 2.1% compared to closed primaries.

“Contests that allow voters to choose which party ballot they want to participate in increases turnout, on average, by 1.5 percent, but semi-closed primaries have lower turnout, on average, by 2.1 percent” according to the authors, “Perhaps modified open primaries do not result in higher turnout because many independents are unaware that they can participate or do not want to declare a party allegiance and change their voter registration.” 

One narrow study, which used data from 2008, showed that there was a slight increase in voter turnout associated with open and semi-closed primaries, as opposed to closed.

“[P]articipation tends to be lower in closed primaries compared to open and semi-closed primaries, where all voters may participate.”

However, the researchers warn that the effect was slight. “Thus, greater inclusiveness does appear to lead to higher turnout, but the effect is not overwhelming.” 

Changing party affiliation

Among the 14 states that boast a closed primary system are Maine, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York. Vermont holds open primaries – meaning any registered voter can vote in either primary — and Massachusetts holds semi-closed primaries similar to New Hampshire.

With both closed and semi-closed primaries, voters looking to change their partisanship typically must change their affiliation before candidates file to run. 

“The logic behind it is that you shouldn’t be changing your partisanship just because you like one candidate or the other,” Smith said. He added that the requirement in Love’s bill to declare affiliation at least four months, or 120 days, before the primary is not unusual. 

Currently, a voter looking to change affiliation must do so by the first Wednesday in June before the election for the State Primary Election, and by the day that candidates can file for office for the Presidential Primary.

For the 2020 Presidential Primary, New Hampshire voters had until 110 days before election day to change their affiliation.

Voters can change their affiliation by going in person to their town hall and filling out a form with the clerk.

Under New Hampshire’s semi-closed system, undeclared voters choose which party’s election to vote in on primary day — technically declaring their affiliation. While they are voting, they are a member of that party, Smith said. 

A voter can change their status back to undeclared by filling out a form before leaving the polling place, but if they don’t fill out the form they remain a member of the party.

If Love’s bill were to become law, this undeclared system would no longer be in place, and only registered members of the two parties would be able to vote in each primary.

The bill would also require that if a candidate wants to run on either party’s ballot, they must be a member of that party for at least six months before the election.

Currently in New Hampshire, there is no requirement to be a member of the party for which you seek nomination, and that is something Smith said candidates take advantage of.

“A lot of state representatives, in particular, take advantage of this in some districts which are overwhelmingly Republican or overwhelmingly Democrat, they’ll get their name on both ballots,” Smith said. “When they have strong name recognition, they can win on both the Republican ticket and the Democratic ticket, meaning they face off against themselves in the general election.”

Love said he wants to prevent candidates who might have Democratic or Socialist values from running in the Republican primaries.

“It’s really too bad that something like this has to be done in order to keep it the way an election is intended to be,” he said.

The bill will soon head to the House, where it will be assigned a committee at the start of the new legislative session in early January. 

“It would shock me if it passed, but it’s a subject that needs discussion,” Love said.


GSNC data editor Johnny Bassett contributed to this report.


These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 


About this Author

jenny-whidden

Jenny Whidden

Jenny Whidden is serving as a reporter for Granite State News Collaborative through the Report for America program.

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