You may have heard the adage “democracy is not a spectator sport,” but what about “democracy is a four-season sport”? Every other year we hear the call (literally, on our phones) to get out and vote, but citizens have many opportunities to get involved in their government outside election season. Any person can show up to testify at a public hearing at the state Legislature, write their representatives to voice an opinion on a bill, or pen a letter to the editor. Granite Staters can also ask their legislators to sponsor bills on their behalf. Anyone can have an idea to make our state a better place, from the animals in your backyard to the sentences in our courts. Here is the story of some of New Hampshire’s citizen-led bills to inspire you.
Raising the marriage age
Until recently, the minimum age for marriage in New Hampshire was 14 years old for boys and 13 years old for girls. Cassandra Levesque, a high school student, learned about this law after attending a Girl Scout conference on human trafficking and forced child marriage. She asked Rep. Jacalyn Cilley (D-Barrington) to sponsor a bill to raise the marriage age to 16. Their first attempt, in 2017, was unsuccessful, but their second bill, HB 1587, passed in 2018.
Cassandra Levesque went on to win election as a state representative and has been working to raise the marriage age again, this time from 16 to 18.
Tyler Shaw’s Law
Gov. Sununu recently signed a law enhancing penalties for repeat DUI offenders, HB 179. The bill is named Tyler Shaw’s law in memory of a 20-year-old man killed by a repeated drunk driver in 2018. Tyler’s mother, Beth Shaw, started work on a bill in 2019 to lengthen the prison time for persons convicted of negligent homicide who have prior convictions for driving under the influence of drugs or liquor. Beth told WMUR she plans to propose more related legislation in coming years.
Free period products in school
Caroline Dillon was a high school student in Rochester when she learned about the issue of period poverty. Many young women are unable to purchase menstrual products, resulting in embarrassing and disruptive trips to the nurse’s office, unhygienic makeshift pads, or missed school days. She contacted Sen. Martha Hennessey (D-Hanover) to sponsor SB 142, a bill to require middle and high schools to offer free menstrual products in girls’ bathrooms. Gov. Sununu signed that bill into law in 2019.
Some legislators argue SB 142 puts an unconstitutional spending mandate on local schools, but attempts to repeal the law in 2021 failed.
Official state animals
There are several examples of teachers helping their students propose bills to name official state animals.
This process went a bit off the rails in 2015 when a group of fourth graders worked with Rep. Renny Cushing (D-Hampton) to proclaim the red-tailed hawk as the state raptor. During a floor debate representatives argued the bill was unnecessary and inappropriate; Rep. Warren Groen (R-Rochester) memorably said the raptor would make a better mascot for Planned Parenthood. While the 2015 proposal failed, the students didn’t give up on the legislative process. In 2019 Gov. Sununu signed HB 280 to designate the red-tailed hawk as the state raptor.
Most recently students from the Hollis Primary School worked with Rep. Kat McGhee (D-Hollis) to proclaim the daring jumping spider to be the state spider.
In 2018 a constituent approached Rep. Michael Moffett (R-Loudon) about a neighbor’s ducks invading his property. New Hampshire has a law against trespassing livestock, but the law did not address birds such as ducks and chickens. Rep. Moffett filed a bill to add domestic fowl to the state’s livestock trespassing law, HB 1289. Following press coverage, Rep. Moffett heard from more voters harassed by “rampaging chickens.” While there was some debate about whether HB 1289 could be used to harass farmers, the bill ultimately sailed through the House and Senate and was signed into law by Gov. Sununu.
This is just a small sample of bills that started with individual Granite Staters. There are many more notable examples, from Michelle’s Law in 2006 (preventing insurance companies from removing students from their parents’ coverage if they leave school during an illness) to recent proposals to end "daylight saving time" in New Hampshire.
This year state representatives can request bills from September 13 through 17; state senators can request bills from October 13 through October 27. If you have an idea for legislation, reach out to your representative or senator and discuss the idea. You can find who represents you on our Elected Officials page.