Update: Bill on power to delay N.H. town elections fails; secretary of state candidates react

  • Loudon resident Chuck Cormier battles his way through the snowstorm and back to his truck Tuesday after voting at Loudon Town Hall. Monitor file

Associated Press
Published: 5/23/2018 4:57:31 PM

Keep your fingers crossed for good weather next March – the New Hampshire Legislature has failed to resolve the issue of who has the authority to postpone local elections.

Though state law requires towns to hold annual elections the second Tuesday in March, nearly 80 communities rescheduled their 2017 elections when a storm dumped more than a foot of snow across much of the state. That sparked widespread confusion about who has the authority to reschedule elections. But before lawmakers could agree, another storm hit this year.

The Senate later passed a bill, Senate Bill 438, to give the secretary of state the final say, while the House gave authority to town moderators. A committee of conference recommended a slightly modified version of the Senate bill, but the House rejected it Wednesday.

Republican Rep. James Belanger of Hollis called the bill a knee-jerk reaction.

“We’ve been conducting town elections for hundreds of years without an issue until the past two years. I’ve ordered good weather for March elections in 2019 and 2020 so there won’t be a problem in those two years,” he said. “Can’t we wait another year or two and iron this out, and come up with an acceptable compromise?”

The bill would have given the secretary of state the authority to postpone town elections if the governor has declared a state of emergency or if a town moderator requests a delay. Critics argued town officials are in the best position to evaluate whether it is safe to hold elections. Republican Rep. William Marsh, the town moderator in Brookfield, said hurricane-force winds flattened trees in a neighboring town during the 2017 storm, but only locals would have known that.

“Expecting the secretary of state in Concord to be aware of local conditions in every town in New Hampshire is entirely unreasonable,” he said.

Critics also argued the bill would wreak havoc with dozens of other state laws because it defines town “meetings” and town “elections” as two disconnected events.

“The ensuing chaos would be a much bigger problem than a March blizzard,” Marsh said.

Absent new legislation, the attorney general’s office and secretary of state issued a memo to towns this year saying no municipal official is authorized to postpone elections.

In the memo, sent out a week ahead of the 2018 elections, Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Attorney General MacDonald said the law on elections – RSA 669:1 – is clear: They must be held the second Tuesday in March. Town meetings, on the other hand, may be delayed in weather emergencies under RSA 40:4, they said.

But the law is silent on whether or how election postponements could happen, if deemed necessary. 

Gardner, who clashed with town officials over that position during snowstorms of 2017 and 2018, said he regretted that the latest version of SB 438 failed to make it through. The bill, he said, would have provided clarity.

“We were working toward with this bipartisan, joint committee, both House and Senate members, (which) came up with a process,” he said, referring to a study committee that met last year. “And we were okay with that – what they’ve come up with.”

It’s a position held by Rep. Ken Gidge, D-Nashua, who on Wednesday said that vesting the secretary of state with authority to postpone elections made more sense than delivering the power to local officials, who he said could be driven by political motivations to reschedule voting. Speaking to the House floor in favor of the bill, Gidge invoked the over 40 years of Gardner to make his point.

"If you can’t trust a secretary of state after so many years of service, how can you trust 50 or 60 people who you do not know?” he said.

But it’s a view not held by Gardner’s primary opponent for the role of secretary of state. In a statement, Colin Van Ostern hailed the 118-225 vote against the bill as “basic common sense,” adding that “local officials who are trying to protect public safety and voting rights in the middle of a blizzard aren't helped by a bureaucratic power grab by the Secretary of State.”

And Van Ostern said moving forward, without clear statutory guidance, Gardner should endeavor to be more flexible to towns.

“Now, to finally fix this mess, our next Secretary of State must start to cooperate with local officials, respect local control, and stop the unproductive turf fights and heavy-handed interference with legislative compromise we've seen lately,” Van Ostern said.

The stance echoed that of many members of the House on Wednesday, some of whom serve as local officials in their own towns. But Gardner said when it comes to election delays, the law cannot be moved.

“I know nobody has ever been given the authority to postpone any election,” he said. “An election is a very sacred event. It’s the people’s event. And it’s a very serious matter to do that.”

(Ethan DeWitt contributed to this report.)

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