New Hampshire: Where anyone can become a state representative

Story highlights

  • New Hampshire's state and local leadership, run mostly by volunteers, makes Granite State government truly unique.

Concord, New Hampshire (CNN)New Hampshire's role in the presidential primary is arguably the most important due to the state's first-in-the-nation status. But New Hampshire residents' role in state and local leadership, run mostly by volunteers, is what really sets Granite State politics apart.

The 400-member New Hampshire House of Representatives is the third largest governmental body in the English-speaking world, after the U.K. House of Commons, at 650 members, and the U.S. House of Representatives, which has 435 seats. Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie has joked on the campaign trail that he routinely runs into three current or four former state representatives.
"You guys trip over state reps every four miles," said the New Jersey governor.
    While other -- often much larger -- states have voted to keep their number of representatives in the 100 person range, New Hampshire has gone the other way. In 1942, a constitutional amendment limited the size of the House to 400 but not less than 375 members.
    That is one representative for every 3,300 to 3,500 people in a state with a population of about 1.3 million. A candidate can win a state House seat with about 1,200 to 1,500 votes, said Andrew Smith, Director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. "It is very unique."
    State representatives in New Hampshire are often retired, students or those who can afford to make the two-year time commitment, which is demanding given the pay: only a $100 a year.
    "We're doing this for the right reasons -- it's not for the money for sure," said state Rep. Gene Chandler (R) who previously served as Speaker of the House.
    "If I could do this forever I'd love to, but mom and dad I don't think are a fan of that," said Rep. William Pearson (D), who in his mid-20s is among the youngest state House members. "So the idea now is to go into law school and see if I can't get involved in government in a sustainable way."
    But it also doesn't cost a lot to run.
    "You don't have to file a report unless you spend $500," said Secretary of State Bill Gardner (D). "So I think most of them don't even file a report."
    The State House is also known for its lively debates on an eclectic range of topics -- including if women should be allowed to go topless in public places, to whether state representatives should be allow to carry concealed weapons inside the State House. And every representative who files a bill gets a hearing and vote on the proposed legislation.
    "One of the fun things for reporters to do is to go through that list of bills that are filed the first day and find the craziest ones that are in there," said Smith, who is also a University of New Hampshire political science professor. "There are always several you can point to."
    Representatives also get a front seat to the presidential campaigns, as White House candidates must stop by the State House to pay their $1,000 filing fee. Once inside, they will almost certainly meet Gardner, the nation's longest serving Secretary of State, in office since 1976.
    Gardner has guarded New Hampshire's "first in the nation" primary status as other states have attempted to move their primaries up.
    The large number of state representatives -- and the likelihood that one or more is someone in their community -- means New Hampshire residents are undaunted by the politicians who visit every four years.
    "The governmental structure here in New Hampshire allows people to be personally involved. They have the chance to hold office," Gardner said.
    "They know what it's like to have neighbors angry because they supported books at the library rather than a fire truck, but that's part of what they do here. There's a unique political culture here that is historic and goes right back to the beginning."
    "We have such a strong historical nature here to this State House," said Chandler, the former state House speaker, about the building, which opened in 1819. "I just think it's the greatest body in the world right here in New Hampshire."