Capital Beat: House looks to replace its voting system, with $560k price tag
The House’s electronic voting system was a state-of-the-art solution to the time-consuming problem of calling a roll call for 400 people.
But that was in 1975. The system has had repairs and upgrades over the years, but it’s definitely showing its age.
“Almost every session day there are problems. . . . We have buttons that don’t work, we have trouble putting votes up on the screen,” said Rep. David Campbell, a Nashua Democrat and chairman of the Public Works and Highways Committee. “The fear is that on a busy day, it fails completely. And if it does that, it’ll be pretty hard to do the people’s business if a roll-call vote takes a half-hour.”
The House added money in the capital budget this year to replace the system. We’re not talking about installing a Jumbotron in Representatives Hall, but it’s still not cheap: $560,000, a figure Campbell said is based on a vendor estimate.
He said House staff looked at options for the system two years ago, but lawmakers “decided it could limp along a while longer.” Now, he said, the clock is ticking.
“We’re doing it only because we feel it’s on the verge of catastrophic failure,” Campbell said.
The Senate, with just 24 members, calls the roll by voice. The House calls a formal roll call at the beginning of the two-year session, but for everyday votes, members have 30 seconds to press red or green buttons on a seat-back box, and the results are displayed on a screen at the front of Representatives Hall.
When introduced in January 1975, the new system delivered on the promise of turning roll-call votes from a 30- or 45-minute ordeal to a less-than-one-minute wonder.
“The session sported a new look with the complicated electronic roll machinery at every House seat – equipment that took several tries before the members mastered its buttons and lights,” the Monitor reported as the session began that year.
But over the past couple of sessions, problems have multiplied. Wires break and require soldering, causing buttons to stop working. Results won’t pop up on the screen quickly. One member’s voting box failed entirely for a while this year, forcing the representative to flash a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to the clerk’s staff during roll-call votes, according to Assistant House Clerk Paul Smith.
“Overall, the system is very old,” he said. “It requires an outdated computer system to run it. It’s all DOS-based or something older, I don’t know.”
If it failed entirely, Smith said, the clerk would have to call the roll by voice – and House rules require all members to remain in their seats during the vote.
A new system would be more than new buttons and screens, Campbell said. It would come with new software that would allow easier sharing of information, with the public and internally, and make the entire operation run more smoothly.
And it’s not the only upgrade to the Legislature’s digs in this year’s capital budget. The latest version also includes $450,000 for a new roof on the State House Annex building and more than $472,000 to repair the dome, including replacing the gilded surface. (An additional $700,000 is available for the
dome project from the 2011 capital budget.)
The capital budget typically doesn’t spark the same partisan fight as the operating budget. The House’s two-year, $227.2 million capital budget passed the chamber this month on a 285-68 vote.
That doesn’t guarantee that the Republican-led Senate will sign off on the Democratic-led House’s request for a new voting system. But, Campbell noted, plenty of senators used to serve in the House, so they know what’s at stake.
Accolades and blowback
U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte made a lot of people angry and a bunch of people happy when she voted last week against expanding background checks for gun sales.
The New Hampshire Republican joined most Republicans and a few Democrats to block legislation that would require checks for sales at gun shows and over the Internet. It was the highest profile of several gun control-related votes Wednesday in the Senate.
Several people reported trying to call Ayotte’s office after the vote, but reaching a voicemail box that was full and not accepting new messages.
“Call volume is high anytime the Senate deals with an issue that garners national attention, and the office has heard from those on both sides of this issue who feel strongly,” said Ayotte spokesman Jeff Grappone.
Sparring extended to social media. Democrats started a Twitter hashtag, “#NRAyotte,” conflating the senator with the National Rifle Association. The state Republican Party circulated a photo on Facebook thanking Ayotte “for standing up for our Second Amendment rights!”
U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, supported the background-checks legislation. Her vote drew less attention than Ayotte’s did, and Shaheen’s office said positive reaction has outnumbered negative reaction by about 3 to 1.
“The correspondence we’ve received from constituents has been very positive. The feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly in support of Sen. Shaheen’s votes on Wednesday,” said spokesman Shripal Shah.
State Senate squabble
Marilla Marks Ricker won’t be getting a portrait in the State House. And the Legislature won’t be asking Congress to give New Hampshire a “comprehensive health care delivery system” for veterans or to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United campaign-finance decision.
All three measures passed the House this year as resolutions. But the Senate won’t vote on them because the GOP majority changed one of the chamber’s rules back in February to require a two-thirds vote to introduce resolutions.
Republicans said the change would help senators focus on more important legislation, not empty resolutions seeking to make a political point. But Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen, a Concord Democrat, has called the change a “gag rule” that stifles important debate.
Democrats tried Thursday to get the three House-endorsed resolutions introduced, but fell far short of the two-thirds threshold.
On 13-11 party-line votes, the Senate declined to introduce the joint resolution to display a portrait of Ricker, a suffragist who died in 1920, or the concurrent resolution urging Congress to overturn Citizens United.
The concurrent resolution on veterans’ health care failed on a 12-12 vote. One Republican broke ranks: Majority Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, a former congressman and potential candidate for the U.S. Senate next year.
Sanborn for governor?
Is Sen. Andy Sanborn thinking about running for governor after all?
The Bedford Republican and owner of The Draft in Concord made a point of blasting Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan in a speech to the state GOP’s annual meeting in January. And he’s taken a higher-profile role in the Senate for his second term, including as chairman of the Commerce Committee.
He said in February that he had no plans to run for governor. But WMUR reported Friday that Sanborn held a number of meetings a week earlier in Washington, D.C., including one with officials from the Republicans Governors Association.
Sanborn declined to comment.
Several Republicans have floated their names for possible 2014 runs against Hassan, including Kevin Smith, who finished second in last year’s gubernatorial primary, and Executive Councilor Chris Sununu.
The week ahead
The Senate won’t meet this week, though its committees are keeping busy on bills passed by the House.
Those include House Bill 135, the controversial repeal of the 2011 “stand your ground” law, which the Senate Judiciary Committee will take up Tuesday morning.
The House will meet Wednesday, but doesn’t have a long agenda. Among the bills it’ll take up is legislation to posthumously free 14 slaves who (unsuccessfully) petitioned the legislature for their freedom during the Revolutionary War.
The House’s casino “supercommittee” will hold subcommittee work sessions tomorrow through Thursday as the Finance/Ways and Means mashup continues to examine Senate Bill 152, which would allow a single casino in the state.
And tomorrow, the University of New Hampshire School of Law will inaugurate its new Warren B. Rudman Center for Justice, Leadership and Public Policy with a conference on federal fiscal policy.
Among the luminaries attending the conference are former U.S. comptroller general David Walker, U.S. Sens. John McCain and Ayotte, and former senators Pete Domenici, Phil Gramm, Bob Kerrey and Olympia Snowe.
News of note
∎ Rep. Angie Kopka, Democrat of Nashua, marked her 97th birthday Thursday at the State House with cake.
∎ Two-time GOP gubernatorial nominee Ovide Lamontagne is moving to D.C. to become the new general counsel for Americans United for Life.
∎ Lorraine Stuart Merrill has been nominated by Hassan for another term as the state commissioner of agriculture, markets and food. She’s held the job since 2007 and, if confirmed by the Executive Council, would remain in the post into late 2017.
∎ Ted Gatsas told the New Hampshire Union Leader on Friday he’s running for a third term as mayor of Manchester. Democrat Patrick Arnold had already announced he would run against the Republican this fall.
∎ Ayotte will speak at New England College’s commencement, May 18 in Henniker.
(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or email@example.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)