New Hampshire’s low marks for campaign finance came as no surprise to reform advocates. “Time and again we ran into the issue of a complete under-resourcing of the infrastructure to properly enforce the laws,” said Daniel Weeks, the executive director of Open Democracy, a state-based group that advocates limiting the flow of money in politics, particularly from super-PACs and other third party groups.
Open Democracy lodged a complaint in October 2014 with the state attorney general’s office charging that the state branch of Americans for Prosperity did not register or disclose spending on the 2014 election under a newly enacted rule governing “political advocacy organizations.” Nearly a year later, the office had yet to officially respond to the complaint.
Tracking how candidates spend their money and who contributes to them is further complicated by the state’s antiquated campaign finance website. Separate reports for each candidate and committee are simply scanned and posted as PDFs.
The posting of original documents online, as opposed to putting them in searchable form, is a common complaint across state government websites in New Hampshire; as a result, the state received low scores in several categories of the State Integrity Investigation for not adhering to modern “open data” standards.
New Hampshire also scored poorly on “access to information.” The right of citizens to access government records and meetings is enshrined in the state constitution and is clearly defined in Chapter 91-A, commonly known as the “right to know” law. But in practice, this right is circumscribed both by legal exemptions (the governor’s office is not subject to the law), and the lack of any formal mechanism for appealing when agencies rebuff information requests. In such cases, a citizen’s only recourse is the court system. And the bar for recovering attorney fees and other costs is dauntingly high — only when an agency “knew or should have known” that materials were wrongfully withheld.
Many of New Hampshire’s other low scores stem from a lack of formal oversight entities: there’s no central office responsible for fielding right-to-know requests and no statewide ethics agency with sanctioning authority.
But this is a badge of honor for some officials; the Granite State has an historical belief in limited government and an aversion to bureaucracy. And more than a few noted that New Hampshire has had far fewer corruption scandals than states with robust oversight bodies.
A common sentiment is that the political culture of the state is small and collegial enough that folks would take note of funny business. “The expectations of one’s peers is one of the greatest checks on human behavior,” said Charles Arlinghaus, the president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, a venerable conservative think tank.
This may be, but New Hampshire is changing. The number of lobbyists in the state has grown every year over the past decade: there are now more than 500 of them registered with the state. And while races for the 400 seats in the House of Representatives remain small-scale affairs, the amount spent on other state races rose to a new high of nearly $20 million in 2014. All of this raises the question whether New Hampshire’s deep-rooted system of accountability, with its heavy reliance on trust, is up to the task in the modern political era.