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AG’s office critical of Washington, N.H., moderator’s postponing voting day

  • A picture of Washington's town hall. Courtesy—Town of Washington



Monitor staff
Monday, March 26, 2018

In the days leading up the state’s snowy town voting day, Secretary of State Bill Gardner issued a decree to towns: Your moderators do not have the authority to cancel ballot voting elections.

Barbara Gaskell, who has been the town of Washington’s moderator for six years, said she postponed voting day anyway. The day before the storm hit, she rescheduled town voting and town meeting, which had been scheduled for Tuesday, March 13. By the time it was over, 19 inches of snow fell on the town of 1,100 residents and Gaskell found herself in hot water.

“I never took anyone into account except for Washington, the selectmen, the road agent and the weather reports,” she said. “I didn’t take the secretary of state into consideration. I was thinking of my friends and relations and trying to keep them safe.”

Even now, she’s confident she made the right choice.

The Attorney General’s Office disagreed.

Assistant Attorney General Matthew Broadhead sent Gaskell a letter stating the town “continues to have ... significant deficiencies in the conduct of this town election.”

The letter also said Gaskell’s action “could constitute ‘official misconduct’ ” and could be prosecuted as a misdemeanor, although the Attorney General’s Office was not going to pursue that action.

Broadband also disagreed with Gaskell’s call to schedule elections and town meeting on March 17 – the following Saturday – saying residents who needed an absentee ballot wouldn’t have time to request one. Instead, elections would take place on April 3, and the town’s selectmen would have to choose another day to hold the town meeting.

Gaskell said her decision was based on RSA 40:4, which says “in the event (of) a weather emergency ... the moderator may ... postpone and reschedule the deliberative session or voting day of the meeting.” Many town moderators cited the RSA as the reason they postponed voting days when a nor’easter walloped last year’s town voting day.

Gardner has argued that “voting day of the meeting” refers to voting that takes place as part of the business of town meeting, not to all-day ballot elections for offices in traditional communities or ballot voting on warrants conducted by SB 2 communities.

Gaskell said she was aware of the ongoing conversation about local control in postponing elections, but that wasn’t a big factor in her decision. Safety was her primary concern, she said.

Gaskell described the letter as a “major threat” and said she felt like she was being punished for putting her town’s interests first.

“My problem is that he (Gardner) interprets the RSA differently than a lot of people do, but he’s the only one able to enforce his interpretation,” Gaskell said.

The issue of who is allowed to reschedule town elections may be resolved soon.

Senate Bill 438 would give the secretary of state’s office the ability to grant a postponement when the governor declares a state of emergency that covers the town and when the moderator requests it directly.

The bill has made its way through the Senate and is currently in the House’s Election Law committee. A public hearing will be held at 1:15 p.m. Thursday.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)