From hockey rink to drive-in voting: How the New Hampshire Legislature plans to meet next year

  • The New Hampshire State House in Concord on Oct. 4, 2018 Sarah Pearson

Monitor staff
Published: 12/27/2020 9:07:45 PM

They started in a hockey rink, indoors at desks spaced six feet apart.

As winter closed in and COVID-19 cases rose, they moved to a field hockey rink and bundled up.

Next month, the 2021-22 New Hampshire Legislature is trying a new approach: the drive-in voting session.

Plans are still in the works, but interim House Speaker Sherman Packard and his staff are working with the University of New Hampshire to allow lawmakers to meet in their cars in a parking lot when they hold their next meeting on Jan. 6.

The model is familiar to anyone who’s attended a drive-in movie. Lawmakers will park their cars, tune their radios to a dedicated FM station and listen to the proceedings. Speeches will be made from microphones at the front. A sound system will carry the remarks for anyone who’d rather keep their windows down.

It’s the latest attempt to change up the operating plan as the second wave of the coronavirus continues to crest.

The approach is also a response from Republican leadership to a chorus of criticism from Democrats, who argue the Legislature should hold votes entirely remotely next year given recent cases of COVID-19 among members of the Legislature.

The number of New Hampshire lawmakers who have publicly said they have tested positive for coronavirus include Rep. Kimberly Rice, a Hudson Republican and the present Speaker Pro Tempore; Rep. Fred Plett, a Goffstown Republican; and Sen. Bob Giuda, Republican of Warren.

House Speaker Dick Hinch died earlier this month at 71 after contracting COVID-19, according to the state’s medical examiner. One staff person in the House majority office and another staff person in Gov. Chris Sununu’s office also have tested positive for the virus in recent weeks. And a Nov. 20 gathering of Republican House representatives was identified by the Department of Health and Human Services as a “spreader event”; at least four lawmakers present tested positive for the virus afterward.

On Dec. 18, House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing called on acting House Speaker Sherman Packard to take up remote meeting for the Jan. 6 meeting.

“With a body of 400 members, it is essential that we figure out how to meet remotely beginning on January 6th,” Cushing said. “No legislator should have to put their life at risk to fulfill their duties.”

Cushing and Democrats say they sent the Speaker’s office a memo outlining suggestions for how the House could meet remotely Dec. 14.

But Packard said a remote meeting was not possible for Jan. 6, an important meeting in which rules will be voted on and a new speaker will be elected. Packard was nominated to succeed Hinch as Speaker by the Republican caucus earlier this month.

“It is my opinion, in talking with our staff, that we are not prepared to run an election for speaker or conduct our business for adopting rules in a remote meeting or hybrid situation, nor do our rules allow for it,” Packard wrote in a message to the full House in the calendar on Dec. 18.

“A drive-in type of event will satisfy our need to meet in-person for the purpose of balloting and voting,” he continued. “It will dramatically reduce or even eliminate the need to interact with each other. We will be protected from unnecessary risk and from the elements by our vehicles, and we will meet or exceed every CDC and Public Health recommendation.”

New Hampshire’s Supreme Court issued an advisory opinion in November indicating that the House could lawfully establish a quorum to hold votes remotely.

But in an interview, House Chief of Staff Aaron Goulette, who works in the Speaker’s Office, said that despite the Supreme Court opinion, the House can’t meet remotely until it passes rules to do so, which it hasn’t done.

That rule change could happen at the Jan. 6 meeting. But it might be unlikely – the House Rules Committee, which sends recommended rule changes to the full House, did not recommend that change at its Dec. 16 meeting.

Instead, the Rules Committee passed a pair of rules that pave the way for hybrid committee meetings, allowing a quorum to be reached with virtual committee members and allowing the public to observe the meetings virtually.

For now, the Speaker’s office is working with technicians at UNH to make the drive-in car approach operable for the meeting.

It is unclear whether Democratic members of the House, many of whom skipped the Dec. 5 outdoor meeting citing safety concerns, plan to attend the Jan. 6 meeting in cars.

Meanwhile, as the calendar approaches, House leadership is moving ahead with plans to use the Legislative Office Building for committee meetings under a “hybrid” model.

That would allow lawmakers, lobbyists and members of the public who want to participate remotely to do so by video call, and allow those who want to participate in-person to show up in Concord.

One lingering problem: The LOB, located just behind the State House, does not currently have adequate ventilation, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention standards for indoor meetings spaces, the Speaker’s office says.

Goulette said the Department of Administrative Services has found a vendor to implement a temporary air filtration system while the building staff works to retrofit the entire building with a new HVAC system.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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