Ask any fourth grader, Statehouse tour guide or civically engaged Granite Stater about the size of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, and they’ll likely have one oft-cited number at the ready: 400, the largest of any state in the nation and among the largest in the English-speaking world.
And of course, there are 400 seats in Representatives’ Hall. But if the last few legislative sessions are any indication, the number of representatives who actually show up to represent their constituents, participate in floor votes and otherwise carry out their role in the democratic process is much lower.
A review of this year’s attendance records shows that House attendance peaked at 354 this year, and at some times dipped well below 300.
While some of the empty seats could be written off because of deaths, resignations or other legitimate vacancies, most of them were due to legislators who had been elected but, for whatever reason, were sitting out.
“We had some [representatives] that didn't come at all or came once,” said House Speaker Gene Chandler, adding that he occasionally worried whether there would be enough representatives to meet a quorum.
Chandler, an 18-term veteran of the New Hampshire House, isn’t the only one who’s growing increasingly alarmed by no-show legislators. Headlines like “House members go AWOL” have peppered local papers. Statehouse observers have speculated that absenteeism is to blame for why several pieces of conservative legislation failed in a Republican-controlled Legislature— for example, school choice or Right-to-Work.
Democratic State Sen. Jeff Woodburn even recently suggested the House’s absentee problem is so severe that it might warrant withholding the $100 annual stipend awarded to state reps until they prove they’re willing to show up and serve out their terms.
How does the House keep track of absences?
Just like elementary school, the House tracks both “excused” and “unexcused” absences. According to House Clerk Paul Smith, a legislator gets marked as “excused” as long as he or she contacts his office to register an absence that may fall into one of four standard categories: illness, illness in the family, death in the family or important business.
When it comes to deciding what qualifies as “important business,” Smith says he operates on the honor system. Lots of lawmakers are balancing their service in the House with part- or full-time careers that may conflict with voting days.
“Then again, somebody could be taking a vacation and say, ‘I wish to be excused for important business,’” he added. “They don't necessarily run that by me. It's just a matter of, if they do contact me, we'll excuse them.”
Smith says he’ll also retroactively “excuse” absences as warranted, as well.
“We had a couple of members this year who had extended illnesses and that we didn't know about right at first, and when we find out about those we will go back and excuse the votes that they missed beginning on when they were in the hospital, that sort of thing.”
Was this year really much worse than past years? It depends on how you measure it.
NHPR used the roll call datasets published on the New Hampshire Legislature’s website to analyze attendance rates dating back to 2011— with one caveat. The House adopted a new electronic filing system in 2015, according to its information technology manager, and wasn’t able to provide that year's data in the standard format used for all other files.
So for the sake of avoiding any errors, we omitted that year from our analysis.
If you’re looking at maximum attendance overall, this year’s House session appears to be the worst in recent years. It’s the only one that failed to break 360 participants for any roll call vote, according to the available data.
But when looking at average attendance and absences, this year’s House session wasn’t so much an outlier as a continuation of a trend that’s been years in the making — regardless of which party’s in power.
The average attendance for a House session has fluctuated between a low of 315 in 2014 to a high of 350 in 2017, and the number of absences has similarly ebbed and flowed along the way. When looking at the chamber as a whole, it doesn’t appear that the average number of absent legislators — excused or unexcused — is significantly higher than it’s been in recent years, either.
What impact do absentee lawmakers have on actual lawmaking?
It’s hard to say with certainty. The House is notoriously fickle, and party labels are no surefire predictor of an individual representative’s stance on any given bill. But one way to study whether House absenteeism is interfering with the House’ is examine how often the vote margin on a given piece of legislation has been narrower than the number of legislators who didn't vote.
This year, absentees outnumbered the deciding margin in almost 60 percent of roll call votes.
This was the case on several key votes that sealed the fate of the Republican-backed “education freedom” bill, which failed despite lots of lobbying from the governor and school choice activists.
When the House voted to send the bill for further study, effectively tossing it out for the session, the decision was made by a margin of just 11 votes — far less than either the 61 lawmakers who were absent in total that day, or even just 34 Republicans who were missing.
While it's hard to predict how each of those legislators may vote on that or any given bill, this suggests that their presence — or lack thereof — could be more influential than ever.
Can the House do anything to to get legislators to show up to work?
House Speaker Gene Chandler says officials do their best to prepare lawmakers, especially first-timers, for the demands of the job: “There are no secrets to the job — the session days are Thursdays, that's it.”
And once the session winds up, Chandler and other legislative leaders in both parties pester their colleagues with plenty of calls, emails and other reminders, especially ahead of high-stakes votes.
“We did everything we could think of to try to drum up people but sometimes it didn't work,” Chandler said. “Most of the time it didn't work, I guess.”
And absenteeism isn’t just a problem when it comes to roll call votes, either. Chandler says the issue is just as pervasive in the committee process, where much of the real work of drafting and revising legislation takes place.
“We have a number of legislators who've requested to not be on a committee — which is their right not to — but when they're on one, they invariably don't come,” he said.
Even so, Chandler’s hesitant to get behind any serious structural changes — paring down the size of the House, for example, or changing how legislators are compensated — as a way to deal with waning attendance. Nor is he enthusiastic about the idea of formally removing chronically absent legislators from the House roster.
“The House is in charge of who it seats, in other words, the House can unseat somebody and I would doubt that would be done,” Chandler says. “That would be a pretty scary slope when you start doing it for attendance. Although it might be justified in some cases, but people do have valid reasons [for being absent] sometimes.”
As far as he’s concerned, it’s up to citizens to quiz House candidates about whether they intend to carry out their full responsibilities — and to hold them accountable for showing up once they’re elected.