As Candidates Propose Fundamental Changes, N.H. Voters Question Where to Land

Mar 29, 2019

Traditional issues like health care and the economy are still key talking points for Democratic presidential hopefuls criss-crossing the state this year, but candidates are also rolling out ideas you don't often hear.

Adding justices to the Supreme Court, for example, or changing the way elections are run — these are ideas to reinvent aspects of our political system, to enact more sweeping change.  

It's a response to a growing distrust in the basic mechanics of our democracy. But as the candidates forge ahead, New Hampshire voters are still trying to figure out what to make of these proposals. 

Senator Elizabeth Warren has been one of the more outspoken candidates on this front, pitching fundamental changes to the way American politics work. Moving to a national popular vote is one key issue for her — ditching the Electoral College. 

She was at Littleton High School on Saturday, on stage in front of a couple hundred people.

The event was billed as a panel discussion on the opioid crisis, but she took questions afterward on topics of the audience’s liking.  

Taking the microphone, one man praised Warren for her position on the Electoral College,  then took it a step further. Had she considered, he asked, a system based on citizen petitions and national referendums? 

“Okay!” Warren laughed. “You come to New Hampshire and you hear about democracy. I love this.”

The idea about citizen petitions is nowhere near mainstream. But the sentiment, that the current rules for how our democracy functions aren’t working, is one shared by many Democratic voters across the state.

For some, the feeling started all the way back with the Bush v. Gore decision. For some, it was after the failed Merrick Garland nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Some say it’s the inability to get anything done on gun control, or on containing healthcare costs. 

And for others, it was the election of President Donald Trump. 

But when it comes to concrete ideas for how to fix the system — how to end the partisan gridlock — Democratic voters are less sure where to stand. 

Jimmy Darden and Brian Romeo, for example, came to see Warren Saturday from over the border in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. 

Romeo thought the candidate’s idea to ditch the Electoral College made a lot of sense, but Darden wasn’t so sure. He’s worried a popular vote would actually work against them, since they’re voters in a state with such a low population.

“I think, even still, that just shows that everyone’s vote is not equal,” Romeo argued. “I feel like it should be, regardless of where you live.”

Darden shook his head. “It’s interesting,” he conceded, but he wanted to learn more before making up his mind. 

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg is another candidate who has been proposing significant changes to the political system. That includes the possibility of adding justices to the Supreme Court, which hasn’t been done in 150 years. He was asked at a recent breakfast at St. Anselm College about these ideas, and whether they’re really necessary. 

“The Supreme Court — to me — it’s not so much a question of: Have we figured out today, in 2019, the exact right model. But I think the debate must begin,” he said. 

The country’s founders built into the system a critical ability to evolve, he said. “In a country that changed its constitution so you couldn’t drink, and then realized that that was a bad idea and changed it back, we have the mechanisms to do this, responsibly but boldly.”

“I do think that people everywhere are tired of the divisiveness,” said Maynard Goldman, a Grantham resident who has thought a lot about the Supreme Court and the political system in this country.

He worked in politics for years, he said, on both sides of the aisle. He’s retired now, but teaches continuing education classes for Upper Valley residents through a program run by Dartmouth College. 

It just so happens the course he’s offering right now is titled: “What’s Wrong With the Supreme Court? Plenty.” He had to move the class to a nearby venue in a hotel to accommodate the crowd, he said. Interest has been high. 

He sat down recently with Dave Wood, a neighbor. They’ve both been following candidates coming through the Upper Valley. 

Goldman said he’s not sure how concepts like adding justices to the Supreme Court are really landing with voters. 

“I think these ideas are further down the list than what seems to me to be more important issues — jobs and economy, immigration, healthcare,” he said. “I don't think these other issues are diversions, but I don’t think they’re going to drive huge numbers of people to vote for a particular person.”

Wood listened in agreement, then chimed in. 

“On the other hand, it’s not clear to me which is more important,” he said. “If we can’t deal with healthcare and climate change — the big issues — because we’re so partisan, then fixing the partisan divide is the primary objective.” 

That’s a big question for Democrats in 2020: Will these structural changes really work, not only to excite voters, but ultimately to bridge the political divide.