Commons Sense: An Introduction to New Hampshire’s Government

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by Jack Davidson

Long before General John Stark coined the phrase “Live Free or Die” in 1809, New Hampshire had developed a rebellious streak. The state declared independence from the British Empire in January 1776, a full six months before the rest of the country. Following a recent conversation with Upper Valley State Senator Martha Hennessey – covering both her undergraduate years at Dartmouth and her work in the NH legislature – the Dartmouth Political Times decided to investigate our defiant home state a little further.

Although New Hampshire’s government shares characteristics with the federal model of representative democracy, it incorporates several structures that make it unique among state governments. The state’s Constitution was written in 1784 – three years before the US Constitution – and the revolutionary fervor of its language is still reflected in New Hampshire’s government today, especially in the state’s divided executive branch and sense of citizen governance.

Legislative Branch

New Hampshire’s legislative branch, also known as the “General Court,” is a bicameral legislature which, as in all other states except Nebraska, is composed of a lower chamber, the NH House of Representatives, and an upper chamber, the NH Senate. Members of both chambers are paid $100 per year for their service, meaning that representatives cannot be full-time politicians. As State Senator Hennessey noted when we spoke with her, this tends to skew the legislative population older and wealthier, and attracts people who are either civically minded or passionate about a single issue. Both chambers hold elections every other year, coinciding with congressional elections.

The NH House of Representatives is the largest legislative body in any state, and is the third largest legislature in the English-speaking world. With such fine-grained representation, the body is almost too large to perform its representative function. Because New Hampshire’s population is just 1.327 million people, there is roughly one state representative for every 3,320 New Hampshire residents; if the US House of Representatives had proportionate per capita representation, it would have approximately 96,000 members.

New Hampshire’s representatives are allocated through a complex system that uses both “single member” and “multi-member” districts to divide the state population. For instance, the town of Hanover is part of a multi-member district that sends four representatives to the New Hampshire House; currently, all four are Democrats. At present, the NH House of Representatives has 226 Republican members (56.5%), 173 Democrats (43.3%), and one Libertarian (0.3%).

By contrast, thmarthae New Hampshire Senate has a more typical 24 members, 14 Republicans and 10 Democrats as of November 2016. Unlike the House, this smaller body allows representatives from different districts to form more personal relationships, making the Senate a more cohesive chamber, as State Senator Hennessey noted during our conversation. Like those of the House, Senate districts are based on population, with one senator for every 55,000 people. Within the legislative branch, both representatives and senators can propose bills, which go through a process that mirrors the one used the federal level, with the exception that all bills are subject to a public hearing before they can be voted on in committee. In New Hampshire and federally, the legislature has the power to override an executive veto with a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers; unlike the US Senate, the NH Senate does not have a filibuster rule.

Executive Branch 

New Hampshire’s political claim to fame is its first-in-the-nation presidential primary, but the state’s own executive branch is arguably more interesting than the federal one. New Hampshire’s governor serves a two-year term, while all other states except Vermont elect governors for four-year terms. Although New Hampshire has no term limits for the office of governor, only John Lynch (D) has served as governor for more than six years since the early 19th century, with a tenure lasting from 2005 to 2013. The governor has the power to veto bills passed by the General Court, but New Hampshire remains one of just six states where the governor has no form of “line item veto power.”

Current governor Chris Sununu (R) is the son of former Governor John H. Sununu (R) (1983-1989), and brother of former United States Senator John E. Sununu (R) (2003-2009). He was elected for the first time in November 2016, having served previously on the state’s Executive Council. New Hampshire’s unique, five-member Executive Council is tasked with several broad powers, weakening the governor’s influence as compared to other states.

For instance, the council has broad powers that include approving pardons and the governor’s nominees to government agencies and state courts. The Council also oversees budgetary measures and spending; it must approve all government contracts over $25,000 and most expenditures over $10,000, making it a serious check on the power of both the governor and General Court. This budgetary power also makes the Council a locus of serious debate on certain issues such as state funding for Planned Parenthood, a debate which became a central issue in last year’s gubernatorial election. The Executive Council for 2017-2018 comprises three Republican and two Democratic members. Hanover is currently represented on the council by Joseph Kenney (R), whose district covers most of the northern portion of the state.

Judicial Branch 

New Hampshire’s judicial system has a Supreme Court, a network of Superior Courts spread throughout the state, and a variety of lower courts including district, probate, and family courts. The state’s Superior Courts are the only level at which trials are held; they primarily host criminal trials and higher-value civil suits. New Hampshire’s Supreme Court, the highest court in the state judicial system, handles appeals from all the other courts. The Supreme Court sits in Concord and consists of five justices, although since 2000, the court has also heard cases using a “Three Justices Expedited” (3JX) procedural format that allows for faster decisions on cases that meet certain criteria. All five justices currently seated on the Supreme Court were appointed by Democratic governors, one by Jeanne Shaheen and four by John Lynch.

Justices in New Hampshire receive lifetime appointments, although they are prohibited from serving past the age of 70. (Massachusetts and Rhode Island are the only other states to appoint justices for life.) New Hampshire Supreme Court Justices have gone on to serve at higher levels, like Justice David Souter, who served on the United States Supreme Court from 1990 to 2009.


Though many have a general sense for the structure and function of the federal government, state-level government can prove mystifying. However, a state government can drive impactful policy changes, so understanding the intricacies of the state where you cast votes is extremely important.

National policy debates often play out at the state level. In 2007, New Hampshire passed a law approving civil unions, making it the “first state to embrace same-sex unions without a court order or the threat of one.” As we discussed with State Senator Hennessey, New Hampshire’s newly-elected government is taking up several contentious issues this year, including right-to-work laws, concealed carry permits, cutting business taxes, the Northern Pass project, and voter registration. Many of these issues, particularly the debate around voting rights, have the potential to impact Dartmouth students who cast ballots in state-level elections and call New Hampshire home.