How Often Are N.H. Lawmakers Missing Votes? Not As Much As Last Year, Data Shows

Jun 27, 2019

Rep. Joe Alexander, a first-term Republican from Goffstown, used to think he was “an expert on time management.”

“Then,” he said, “I joined the Legislature.” 

In addition to his duties in Concord, Alexander is pursuing a graduate degree at the University of New Hampshire and working three jobs, including a full-time gig as a bartender. Even with those responsibilities, he’s maintained a 98 percent attendance record for roll call votes this year.

“Every representative should have a 95 percent or above [attendance record],” Alexander said. “I think it's very important. We were elected to do our job.”

Many of his colleagues seem to agree, at least this year.

By most measures, 2019 was a banner year for attendance in the New Hampshire House — especially compared to last year, where at least 46 of 400 House seats were empty on any given session day.

(Scroll down or click here for a searchable database of attendance records for the House and Senate.)

Based on roll call data pulled from the Legislature’s website, this year’s class of lawmakers had higher attendance for floor votes and fewer unexcused absences than any other year for which data was available dating back to 2011. (Records from 2015 were not readily accessible for this analysis.)

Additionally, there were relatively few instances in which the number of absent lawmakers exceeded the deciding margin on a roll call vote. While this was the case for a whopping 59 percent of votes in 2018, it happened just 12 percent of the time this session.

Last year, 34 state reps maintained perfect attendance, missing not a single roll call vote. This year, 55 earned that distinction. On the other end of the roster, seven representatives missed at least 60 percent of this year’s roll call votes — and two representatives missed more than 80 percent.

(Not seeing an attendance graphic? Click here.)

House Clerk Paul Smith, whose office is responsible for fielding notices from representatives when they know in advance that they’ll be absent, says medical issues and other family obligations are behind some of those instances.

“We do have some members that have had some ongoing health issues,” Smith said. “We have a few members that have lost family members this session, like immediate family members, and obviously those folks are going to miss session days.”

But illness and personal tragedies aren’t the only things making it hard for lawmakers to be there for all of the session days. Rep. Tom Loughman, a first-term Democrat from Hampton, says serving in the Legislature can be especially challenging for working parents like him, who have to juggle not just job responsibilities but also childcare.

Loughman’s attendance records show that he missed 20 percent of this session’s roll call votes. A closer look at the timing of those votes show that many of those absences occurred on days when Loughman was present for at least a portion of the votes but left early.

In those cases, Loughman says, the House session ran later than his kids’ daycare, and he had no choice but to leave to pick them up. Any other absences, he said, were because he had to travel for work.

Loughman was just one in a cohort of first-time legislators who swept into office last fall, many of whom ran on a platform of making sure that the Legislature better represented the interests of working parents and young professionals.

But Loughman said he learned firsthand that serious hurdles remain.

“Frankly, I have a pretty typical schedule, in terms of my obligations as a parent and a young professional,” Loughman said. “And if we are going to make it difficult or impossible for people who work for a living or have children in school, I think we've gone far astray from our commitment to a citizen legislature."

(Not seeing an attendance graphic? Click here.)

Loughman and Alexander, the first-term Republican from Goffstown, were part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who put forward a bill to formally study “the economic challenges of employed persons serving in the New Hampshire legislature.”

While the proposal got a greenlight from the House, it died in the Senate. But neither representative said they’ve given up on examining the issue and coming up with reforms that would make it easier for working people to serve in state office — and they hope to pursue this research on their own time, with or without a formal study committee.

For example, Alexander said the House would be wise to try setting its schedule for floor votes several weeks in advance. Several times this year, representatives were told with only a few days’ notice that they needed to block out two full days for floor votes — a practice that can be especially challenging for members who have less flexibility in their work schedules, Alexander said.

Loughman said he’d like to see the House seriously consider incorporating technology to allow committee members to participate remotely in committee meetings or other legislative business. Not only would that potentially improve attendance among lawmakers who are juggling lots of outside commitments, Loughman said, it could also cut down on mileage expenses. 

But Loughman said there are even simpler changes that could go a long way toward streamlining the scheduling process — like ditching the PDF invitations he usually receives for committee meetings in favor of a more modern electronic calendar invites, like the ones used in many workplaces.

“Some of these problems are quite easy to solve, if you care to solve them,” Loughman said.

And then there’s one reform that’s proposed almost annually as a way to address absenteeism and other structural barriers to serving in the Legislature: raising lawmakers’ pay from $100 a year to something a little more reflective of the realities of the job commitment.

But Smith, the House clerk, says making that change isn’t just a matter of getting enough lawmakers to buy into the idea; it would also require an amendment to the New Hampshire Constitution, where the current pay rate has remained unchanged since 1889.

“I don't really know that the political will, even amongst the legislators, is there to do that,” Smith says.

At the same time, he said, the status quo has its own tradeoffs.

“If the public doesn't want to pay folks more and have them consider other options to change the Constitution to meet during different times of the year and that sort of thing, we're stuck with what we're stuck with,” Smith says. “And that often means that you're going to have more folks that are retirees and have more time to be up here.”

(Not seeing an attendance graphic? Click here.)

While absenteeism can ebb and flow significantly in the 400-member House, it’s typically less of an issue in the 24-member Senate. With fewer lawmakers, a single absence in that chamber has a much greater likelihood of affecting the final outcome of a vote, because the margin between political parties or other ideological splits is often much narrower.

This session, almost every state senator had perfect attendance. Sen. Martha Fuller Clark was one exception, missing 49 roll call votes across five session days, according to voting records. Fuller Clark said those absences were due to illness and, on one date, another obligation that required her to be out of state.

“I would say that as an elected official, you have an obligation to be there to vote, and that's a very important part of one's role as a senator or a member of the House of Representatives,” Fuller Clark said. “At the same time, there are sometimes intervening circumstances that interfere with making that possible.”

Perhaps, Fuller Clark said, it would be worthwhile for the Legislature to consider recording the reasons why lawmakers are missing votes — for medical reasons, for work or otherwise — to make it easier for the public to really understand why they were absent.

(Not seeing a searchable attendance database below? Click here.)