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Tete-a-tete: Here in New Hampshire, we don’t take voting ‘for granite’

For many states, the presidential primary is a brief, contained event. Candidates campaign in their states for a few weeks, perhaps a few months, before votes are cast, and the interruptions to daily life are relatively minimal.

Here in the great Granite State, where we have the first presidential primary in the nation, the campaigning season is, shall we say, somewhat more extensive. Presidential hopefuls may venture out among the people of New Hampshire as much as two years before the primary to see if there’s enough interest to mount a campaign.

As for the months leading up to the primary, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a candidate or one of their campaign workers.

With the incredible amount of attention candidates give to New Hampshire, there’s no better place to be a first-time voter. You can meet the candidates in person at any number of events (both small and large), ask them about the issues that are important to you and even score tickets to the official debates.

This happened to be 18-year-old Youngest Brother’s first primary. I’d like to say he took full advantage of our first-in-the-nation status, attending events and talking with the candidates in person in order to make an informed decision, but the truth is that he didn’t really need to. The candidates did quite a thorough job of reaching out to our household without us having to seek them out.

Sometimes this eagerness to engage the common man can get a little overwhelming. Every week night for perhaps six months leading up to the primary, our land line would ring multiple times from 5-9 p.m. Nine times out of ten, it was a polling firm asking for our input for a political survey or a robo-call inviting us to events or to participate in telephone town halls.

After the first month or so, I did my best to avoid these calls. I’d let them ring over to the answering machine or, if I had to answer the phone, hang up quickly if the caller took too long to reply. If the caller takes a few moments to respond, it’s generally an indicator that a robocall is processing what you’ve said and preparing to reply or that you’re being patched through the system of a call center.

The emphasis here is on the word “generally.” I accidentally hung up on my uncle once, who called back rather mystified.

Mom, on the other hand, loves taking these calls. She considers them an invitation to make herself heard and have what matters to her, not just to voters in general, represented in poll results and campaign plans. If she doesn’t share her opinions, she reasons, who will?

It is a noble perspective, to be sure, but in the practical, these calls can be rather disruptive. It’s challenging to appreciate the benefits of our first-in-the-nation status when you’re constantly pausing the TV show you’re watching as a family or delaying sitting down to dinner.

Mom’s enthusiasm, however, has made it difficult for me to justify avoiding these calls. By the night before the primary, I was willingly giving my opinion to the pollsters and wishing I had done so more regularly throughout the polling season.

Grandpa, a lifelong resident of New York state, was visiting us during this time, and he remarked on the volume of the political calls and mailings we received. He assumed that this was because Mom had once volunteered with a campaign a number of years ago and our family’s contact information was now in our political party’s system.

He was absolutely flummoxed when I explained to him that this was simply the natural result of living in New Hampshire. Everyone, whether or not they’ve volunteered with a campaign, gets inundated with event invitations and requests to participate in surveys. Other states don’t receive nearly as much targeted attention.

Though Youngest Brother isn’t receiving this attention himself just yet, he certainly benefited from the attention the rest of the voters in our household received. He would hear the kinds of questions we were being asked and listen to the new information we’d learned about the candidates, participating in the conversations and forming his own opinions.

The most important part of his first primary, however, occurred at the polling place, after he voted. One of the selectmen announced that a first-time voter had just submitted his ballot and pointed out Youngest Brother and said his name. Everyone at the polling place applauded and cheered for him, which really reinforced to him not only the general importance of voting, but the importance of him voting.

In addition to this primary being Youngest Brother’s first voting experience, it was also the first presidential primary since I graduated college where I haven’t been working in a newsroom. I can honestly say that I do not feel any less informed about the candidates as a regular citizen than when I was, for lack of a better term, a “media insider.”

And that, to me, is the wonderful thing about having the nation’s first presidential primary. Any candidate who’s really serious about being elected president goes out of their way to make themselves accessible to the everyday voter. You don’t have to have special connections to hear them speak in person or to ask them a question. In fact, you might not even feel the need to meet them in person after spending so many nights participating in telephone town halls.

Though the sheer number of opportunities for political engagement can get overwhelming, they serve as important lessons to first-time voters like Youngest Brother, as well as reminders for those of us who have been through a few election cycles.

Your opinions matter. Your vote matters. And they have the power to shape our political reality. There’s really no better place to learn this than New Hampshire.

– Teresa Santoski

Originally published March 3, 2016


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