Sunday, March 12, 2006

Democracy Is Different In NH

People have heard that most towns in NH still have town meeting, a seemingly anachronistic and quaint means of governance dating back to earliest colonial times. Everyone gets his or her chance to speak if they wish it, whether it makes any sense or not. People get irritated, even angry. Folks make impassioned speeches about taxes, or schools, or road conditions. Getting to an actual vote is more a matter of social pressure than strict Robert's Rules: we all know when we're sick of this. Folks do try to cheat that system by just stalling the vote until late in the evening, when the opposition has gone home. But you don't get away with that two years running.

We have long had this tendency to give everyone his say. It is not entirely accidental that NH has the first presidential primary. Every idealist and fringe nutcase gets his shot at running here. I recall the Hawaiian "king" who came to speak at my highschool for the 1968 primary, bringing his many wives in tow. Arthur Blessitt came through dragging his cross in 1976, and every four years there are dreamers with no hope of winning, who hope to at least get the word out about their various causes.

NH schoolchildren used to have the Great Stone Face Award, in which 3rd-6th graders voted for their favorite fiction title every year. In other states that had such awards, students would be given a ballot of four or twenty books to choose from. In NH, it was open ballot, and hundreds of books received votes. I remember it well, because my wife ran it for several years, and I remember tallying thousands of votes from around the state, wondering "Is there really a fifth grader who has Moby Dick as her favorite book?" or "Are You There God, can Judy Blume go out of fashion?" Ridiculous votes, of comic books or clear non-fiction, were duly noted and counted.

It's a messy democracy, and even we're moving away from it. The Great Stone Face Award is by nomination only now. More and more towns are moving to separate ballots for issues, or eliminating town meeting altogether.

I like free-for-all democracy -- I like going and hearing candidates live every four years to take their measure. And it's good to hear your fellow citizens try to persuade you with more passion than understanding, because it reminds you what really does motivate people. But even I am moving toward convenience, happy to avoid long meetings and just drop by the highschool gym to vote on the way to work.

I'm not sure it's a step forward.

2 comments:

Wacky Hermit said...

That's what I loved about living in New Hampshire!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

OK, where? There are LDS churches in Concord and Manchester...