New Hampshire Inches Closer to Abolishing the Death Penalty

Death penalty opponents seized an apparent supermajority in the Senate on Election Day

Daniel Nichanian | November 14, 2018

A protest in New Hampshire (Photo from NHCADP/Facebook)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

New Hampshire fell just short of abolishing the death penalty in 2018. But the turnover brought by the 2018 election may be enough to push abolition supporters over the top.

New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939, but it does have one individual on death row—an African American man—since 2008. John-Michael Dumais, the campaign director of the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told me that abolition would be “one more arrow in the quiver” of the national movement arguing that the death penalty “doesn't conform to our evolving standards of decency.” “Advocates will be able to say, with each new state, ‘Look people don't really have a wish for this,’” Dumais said.

In 2018, the GOP-run legislature voted to eliminate capital punishment, but the bill was vetoed by Republican Governor Chris Sununu. Fourteen of 24 senators then voted to override Sununu’s veto, two votes short of the necessary supermajority (16 of 24). The vote was bipartisan. Eight Democrats and six Republicans voted aye; two Democrats and eight Republicans opposed.

New Hampshire voters overhauled the state’s political landscape on Nov. 6. They re-elected Sununu as governor, but they also flipped both legislative chambers to Democrats.

And they gave opponents of the death penalty a supermajority in the state Senate, pending one recount, according to an analysis by The Appeal: Political Report.

Of the 17 returning senators, 10 voted for abolition in September (the other 7 voted against it). But all six new Democratic senators are now on record as supporting abolition.

Four of these new senators have already voted for abolition while in the House; they are Shannon Chandley, Melanie Ann Levesque, Cindy Rosenwald, and Tom Sherman. A fifth, Jeanne Dietsch, has called the death penalty a “feudal sort of arrangement that we no longer believe in.” The sixth, Jon Morgan, told me in a phone interview that he opposed capital punishment. “I would have supported abolishing the death penalty,” he said in a follow-up email about how he would have voted on the specific bill that the Senate considered in 2018. (Both Democrats who opposed abolition in SeptemberKevin Cavanaugh and Lou D’Allesandro—are back.)

If all six maintain these positions, the Senate would have enough votes to override Sununu’s veto. (You can review the details of my Senate whip count.)

The catch: Republican Senator William Gannon, who backs the death penalty, is contesting his narrow loss to Morgan. Besides requesting a recount, he has challenged whether Morgan meets residency requirements. If the result flips, the fate of abolition would come down to David Starr, a newly elected Republican. Starr did not respond to my request for comment about his views.

The large size of the state House makes whip counts far trickier. Still, abolition advocates have reason for optimism. In April, the House voted to abolish the death penalty 223 to 116, which was just short of the 2:1 margin needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

The chamber shifted considerably last week. Democrats have won at least 50 more seats in the House (225) than what they had in April (175), according to provisional results. To be sure, some new Democrats will most likely oppose abolition and some of the defeated Republicans supported it. But Democrats were still far more likely to support abolition in the past: In the House vote in April, 83 percent of all Democrats and 47 percent of all Republicans voted to abolish the death penalty. If the incoming House splits along similar lines—an uncertain proposition—that would suffice for abolition. When asked about the chances for reform in the next session, Dumais estimated that there was a “90 percent chance if not better” that the House could override a veto. But he also warned that the chamber just saw a lot of turnover. “We'll have to do a lot of work,” he said.