Bill allowing secretary of state to postpone town meetings passes N.H. Senate

  • Loudon resident Chuck Cormier trudges through the snowstorm and back to his truck after voting at Loudon Town Hall on March 14, 2017.

  • More than a foot of snow covered the Monadnock Region, delaying town meeting and elections in 2017. Monadnock Ledger-Transcript file

Monitor staff
Thursday, March 08, 2018

A year after a blizzard plunged New Hampshire towns into election pandemonium, the state Senate passed a bill allowing the secretary of state to postpone town meetings and elections in cases of extreme weather.

Senate Bill 438 would give the secretary of state’s office the ability to grant a postponement in two situations: when the governor declares a state of emergency that covers the town and when the moderator requests it directly. In both cases, the secretary of state’s office would maintain discretion, but if it doesn’t respond in four hours, the town may postpone the election anyway.

The bill would cover any situation with “imminent serious threat to public health or safety.”

Supporters said it would clear up confusion, which was on full display last year when around a third of towns in the state decided to postpone their elections due to a blizzard. At the time, the secretary of state’s office stated that the towns had no authority to do so; Gov. Chris Sununu said he agreed, but announced there would be no penalties for the towns who had decided to do so.

“(This would) provide clarity for municipalities should they need to postpone in the future,” said Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead.

In SB 2 towns, the bill also allows the moderator to postpone a deliberative session – the “meeting” portion of town meeting – up to 24 hours before it is scheduled to start if they think the roads will be hazardous or unsafe. That authority comes without the need for state permission.

Explaining the discrepancy between meetings and elections, the purpose clause states that elections are easier. Though the bill provides the new protocol, it stipulates that “postponement of elections in New Hampshire has been and should remain extraordinarily rare.”

Some, such as Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, objected to the bill’s mitigating language, arguing that moderators should be afforded wider discretion.

But Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, called the bill a compromise between competing centers of power. “It balances local control with state mandate, feudalism with state control,” he said.

The bill moves to the House after passing the chamber, 16-8.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)