In March, New Hampshire House and Senate leaders announced the legislature was suspending activity until May 4. This followed federal guidelines against large gatherings. While the New Hampshire Senate is only 24 members, there are 400 state representatives.
Meanwhile there are about 700 New Hampshire bills that have yet to get a final vote this year. Those bills address many issues potentially related to the coronavirus pandemic: absentee ballot procedures, remote notarization, family and medical leave, the NH Vaccine Association, and more. That’s not to mention all the other hot issues in 2020: gun laws, voter residency requirements, PFAS regulations, marijuana legalization, and so on.
Voting on those 700 New Hampshire bills was scheduled to wrap up in June. With every bill guaranteed a public hearing and a full vote, the state legislature is already far behind schedule.
What should the New Hampshire House and Senate do with these bills? Here’s a take on the pros and cons of different options.
1. Go remote
Legislative leaders in New Hampshire are currently experimenting with systems for remote voting, or at least remote committee hearings.
Pennsylvania, the state with the second largest House of Representatives (200 members), is already trying out a remote voting system. Members scan handwritten votes and send them in electronically.
Other state legislatures have experimented with hearings and votes by teleconference.
Pros: There are many bills that New Hampshire may want to address sooner rather than later. Remote hearings and voting will empower legislators to act now to help constituents. Remote procedures may actually increase some voters’ access to the legislative process, since testifying at mid-day hearings in Concord is difficult for most people working 9-5 jobs.
Cons: Imagine 400 people on the same teleconference line, some with very limited tech experience and low bandwidth. It sounds like an unworkable nightmare, right? Public participation, civil debate, and accurate votes are all a challenge. Remote sessions are also be vulnerable to hackers. There are increasing reports of hijacked video conferences using Zoom software.
2. Wait until the summer
Theoretically the legislature could push its entire timeline out a couple of months. 2020 may be an election year, but new legislators won’t be sworn in until December.
Pros: If social distancing guidelines loosen up this summer, legislators may be able to return to business as usual without duct-taping together an imperfect remote voting system.
Cons: The Statehouse isn’t air conditioned, which is one reason why legislators aren’t in Concord much over the summer. There’s also a chance social distancing guidelines will extend months, so there’s no guarantee 400+ people could gather in the House chamber even if they wanted to.
3. Kill or postpone the bills
The New Hampshire legislature only started meeting annually in the 1980s. Before then, the legislature convened once every two years. Given the state of emergency, maybe New Hampshire should consider the extraordinary measure of scrapping any more legislative activity this year.
Pros: Some people argue that the New Hampshire legislature already passes too many laws each year. Cutting back on legislative activity might cut back on unnecessary or frivolous laws. Any important issues can be reintroduced in 2021.
Cons: If the legislature does not continue its session this year, New Hampshire will arguably look more like a dictatorship than a democracy in 2020. Gov. Sununu has issued executive orders touching on everything from driver’s ed to construction permits. Legislators – who are closest to the voters in their districts – arguably deserve a chance to weigh in on policy responses to the coronavirus, not to mention all the other pressing Granite State issues.
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