Looking into attendance records for NH lawmakers? Details matter.

Attendance dropped for Democrats and rose for Republicans during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Republicans pushed for a return to in-person sessions.

Looking into attendance records for NH lawmakers? Details matter.
NH House members meet on May 5, 2022. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

House Clerk Paul Smith fields calls “pretty frequently” from voters wanting to know their representative’s attendance record. As the election approaches, candidates are now asking the same about their opponents.

The answer is complicated enough to make drawing conclusions a challenge.

Do you count the number of session days missed? (This year, nearly 180 House members had a 100% attendance record while one lawmaker, House Minority Leader David Cote of Nashua, attended none.)

  • How was their attendance at committee meetings, where lawmakers hear from the public?
  • Was their absence from a session day “excused” – granted for illness, “important business” such as a work conflict, or a death in the family?
  • Were they present but missed an important vote to take a call or use the bathroom?

The nuances go on.

  • Does the volunteer nature of the job (lawmakers earn $100 a year plus mileage) contribute to lower attendance rates?
  • Should safety concerns about COVID-19 be considered?
  • How do you balance the public calls for a younger Legislature with more lawmakers trying to balance a job and State House duties. (There are about 120 lawmakers under age 60, Smith said.)

“The black and white right in front of you on the screen doesn’t always convey the reality of why they may not have been there,” Smith said. He directs callers to the General Court website, where attendance and voting records can be found by searching lawmakers or bills.

Tracking 'effectiveness'

Citizens Count, a nonprofit that monitors legislation and surveys candidates on big issues, tracks two numbers to show the “effectiveness” of a lawmaker: attendance at session days and participation in roll call votes, which most often decide controversial issues.

According to its 2022 data, House members attended an average of 91% of the session and participated in an average of 88% of roll call votes. (In the Senate, both numbers neared 100%.)

Search each lawmaker on Citizens Count’s website, and you’ll find that 38 had attendance rates below 75%.

But even Anna Brown, executive director of Citizens Count, said voters deciding whether to support a candidate based on attendance should ask a lawmaker with low attendance the reason for their absences.

“There is a lot that goes into being a legislator besides just showing up for one vote on one day because there’s the work behind the scenes in terms of building support or opposition to bills and the work revising bills,” she said. “So, I would hesitate to put an arbitrary cutoff (for reasonable attendance). But I would say that I think it’s very fair if someone misses a quarter or more votes, to ask the question, to talk to them.”

Participating remotely

Rep. Mel Myler, a Contoocook Democrat seeking his sixth term, had the second lowest attendance rate among lawmakers this year. He attended just 28% of session days and participated in only 17% of roll call votes. He’s one of 11 Democrats with attendance rates below 70% who are seeking reelection.

Myler, who was being treated for cancer during the session, said fears of contracting COVID-19 kept him home. But he believes he represented his constituents well because he streamed his Education Committee meetings on Zoom and texted colleagues questions and input. Myler said remote conversations also allowed him to guide the party’s strategy on the 110 bills that came before his committee.

Most of the actual work that’s done in the House is done in committee.

“Most of the actual work that’s done in the House is done in committee,” Myler said. “That doesn’t mean the votes aren’t important – don’t get me wrong. But the hard work is done in the committee.”

But votes are consequential.

The end of remote participation in 2021 was a factor for several lawmakers.

Rep. Thomas Southworth, a Dover Democrat seeking his fifth term, attributed his 60% attendance to COVID-19 concerns because he has an at-risk family member. Southworth said he was able to participate more last year when the state of emergency led lawmakers to permit remote participation. Southworth faults the Republicans for not continuing that opportunity.

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Like Myler, Southworth said he watched his Ways and Means Committee hearings from home and emailed other committees his position on bills. Illness also kept Democratic Rep. Kenneth Vincent of Somersworth home for nearly 35% of the session.

“Sixty-four percent is not the best record,” he said. “I’m not happy with it, but I did make 64% while being sick.” His attendance was better when remote participation was an option, he said.

Rep. James Mason, a Franklin Republican, made it to 68% of sessions, also because of illness. “Unfortunately, I had a health condition I did not plan on and was confined to hospital stays, operations, home, and wheelchair for about a 6-month period,” he said in an email. “These things happen in life.”

Work considerations

Rep. Walter Stapleton, a Claremont Republican seeking his third term, was among lawmakers to make every session day. It wasn’t easy, he said.

“I retired by selling my business in 2017,” he said. “I’m working now more than I was when I was working. I’m thinking of going back to work so I can retire.”

Rep. Peter Varney, an Alton Republican, missed 28% of the session, not for illness but for work. He owns three businesses and serves as an emergency management director and the fire chief, a position he’d give up if the town could recruit a replacement.

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Varney, who has served five terms, said he hadn’t planned on running again until several constituents asked him to. Asked if he believes his attendance has allowed him to serve constituents, Varney said he’s been the top vote getter in his district.

Brown said their research showed an attendance drop for Democrats and an increase for Republicans during COVID-19. She attributed that to the politics of the coronavirus, with Republicans pushing a return to in-person sessions. House Democrats, including Cote, who did not return messages, sued House Speaker Sherman Packard, a Londonderry Republican, in federal court demanding a return to remote participation.

“Will Republicans keep this higher-than-average attendance, or is it going to become less a political statement? What will happen with the lawsuit? You know, this could be an anomaly. Who knows?” Brown said.

This story was produced by the editorially independent New Hampshire Bulletin, which is part of States Newsroom. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. (The headline and subheads that appear on this page were added by Granite Memo.)