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Leapfrogging Legislature, Sununu signs executive order to allow town meeting postponements 

  • Jaffrey Town Meeting was postponed Saturday, March 14, 2020. Staff Photo by MEGHAN PIERCE

Monitor staff
Published: 1/25/2021 5:43:14 PM

New Hampshire towns can go ahead and postpone their town meetings in 2021 due to the coronavirus, after Gov. Chris Sununu pre-empted a bill in the Legislature with an executive order Friday.

The order – Sununu’s 83rd since the pandemic began – allows towns to postpone their meetings and voting days to as far as July, “where concern exists for conducting the annual meeting and election during the COVID-19 health emergency.”

The extension is available for both ballot voting days and business or deliberative sessions. The decision to postpone may be made by the governing body of a town or school district in consultation with the town’s moderator or clerk, the order states.

Sununu’s order effectively leapfrogs a similar effort in the Legislature this month. Senate Bill 2, which was set up to also allow extensions, was supposed to be fast tracked through the State House and sent to Gov. Sununu’s desk early this month.

But while the Senate moved the bill through with a 24-0 vote, the House failed to even take it up at its car park meeting on Jan. 6. That meant it was consigned to weeks of hearings and a likely earliest passage date of mid-February.

House Republicans said that the extra time was necessary to give the bill a proper hearing rather than an expedited vote. But town moderators disagreed, arguing that a February enactment date “would be too late for these towns to set their schedules and determine their procedures for their 2021 town meetings and elections,” the preamble to the executive order notes.

Sununu’s executive order overrides the Legislature’s efforts and sets the provisions in motion immediately.

Beyond allowing town postponements, Friday’s order also revives the state’s pandemic-era absentee voting rules, allowing town moderators to begin partially processing absentee ballots ahead of the voting day. Those rules were in effect for the September and November state and federal elections but had expired by the end of 2020.

The executive order drew praise from the New Hampshire Campaign for Voting Rights, an advocacy group that had expressed frustration at the House for failing to fast track the legislative version.

“Today is a victory for local election administrators and Granite Staters,” the group wrote in a statement. “Democracy works better when everyone can safely participate, and by allowing for the pre-processing of absentee ballots, local elections will be smoother for all.”

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