N.H. Democrats decry drive-in voting session

  • New Hampshire lawmakers are seen meeting for an outdoor session Dec. 2 at UNH in Durham. AP

Monitor staff
Published: 12/29/2020 5:13:29 PM

A plan to assemble the New Hampshire House of Representatives in a parking lot and carry out a “drive-in” voting session next month has set off new concerns from Democrats, who say that it excludes members with disabilities – and could lead to a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

House Republican leadership has announced an intention to hold the Jan. 6 “Convening Day” at the University of New Hampshire, this time by having each member sit in their own vehicle and listen to speeches and vote from there.

The 400 representatives would space their cars out using every other parking space, according to a plan from UNH distributed to House representatives on Monday by the Speaker's office. Lawmakers would listen to speeches using an FM radio broadcast. 

But three House Democrats with disabilities have written letters to acting-Speaker Sherman Packard saying that sitting for several hours in a vehicle would not be feasible for them. 

Reps. David Cote, Katherine Rogers, and Ken Snow have raised objections to the meeting format and requested further accommodations to participate remotely under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Each of them has disabilities that inhibit mobility.

At a press conference Tuesday morning, Cote, Rogers and Snow joined House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing in criticizing the new plan. They argued that the House session should be held remotely using a video call and that votes could be taken online from afar.

“We presented to the acting Speaker a memo that outlines a number of ways that we could meet safely, that we could meet remotely,” Cushing said. “To me, it's the height of irresponsibility, as we’re in the midst of a pandemic that seems to be spiking, for us to anything other than set the appropriate example, and do what every other business is doing in the state, doing what schools are doing, and that's just meeting safely and meeting remotely.” 

Failure to find a solution could lead the party to turn to the courts, Cushing said.

“Quite frankly, what we’re trying desperately to do is to avoid litigation,” he said, adding that the caucus had a “legal team” reviewing options. 

House Democrats are currently being represented by Paul Twomey, an election law attorney who has represented them in the past, according to Rogers. 

Throughout the press conference, the representatives who had written letters spoke one by one to explain their concerns. 

Rogers, a Concord Democrat, has a degenerative joint disease and uses a walker and wheelchair to move. The requirement to sit in a car would make it difficult for her to attend a session, she said. Sitting for long periods of time is painful, she said, and she would need to ask for help in order to leave her car or use the bathroom. 

In order to not be in pain, Rogers would likely need to take painkillers, she said, something that would not allow her to vote easily, and would preclude her from driving the car afterward. 

“My constituents seem to think that, although I am disabled, that I represent them very well,” Rogers said, referring to her election victories. “But the Speaker and the Republican leadership are putting me in the position of not allowing me to represent my constituents by making it difficult for me to go to a session.”

Cote, meanwhile, pointed to his coronary artery disease and a 2018 heart attack to note that he is at particular risk if he contracts COVID-19. The Nashua representative has been living in his house since March and skipping family gatherings. Driving to Durham would require him to carpool, he said.

“I am utterly mystified as to why we can't proceed under a hybrid option thus allowing each representative to make individual choices based on their individual health and family situation,” he wrote in a letter to Packard. 

Snow's situation is even more fraught, he said: He lives with his wife at the Birch Hill senior facility in Manchester. Snow, 81, was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down in 2017 due to Guillain-Barré Syndrome, and still has mobility issues, he wrote in a letter to Packard. He’s prohibited by the facility from meeting in groups of 10 or more.

“Because of where I live, I do not want to become the Typhoid Mary that brings back COVID-19 to the more than 100 other residents living in the facility where I currently reside, all of whom are over age 65,” he said during the Zoom press conference Tuesday. 

On Monday, Acting-House Speaker Packard wrote a letter to all members of the House addressing concerns with the meeting format.

“First and foremost, please know that I take the health and safety of all our members and staff very seriously, which is why we plan to host what we believe to be the most risk-mitigated session of the House yet during this pandemic, in a socially distanced, inside- your-own-vehicle manner, on January 6,” Packard wrote.

He said that “every reasonable accommodation” had been made for lawmakers in the drive-in plan. 

“Ultimately, every member must determine for themselves, based upon their own circumstances, as they have at previous sessions, whether they will attend,” Packard said.

 Next Thursday’s meeting has taken on elevated significance because it includes an election for House Speaker. House Speaker Dick Hinch died earlier this month of COVID-19, the state’s chief medical examiner reported. Hinch’s passing came a week after he had been voted in during an outdoor meeting on Dec. 5.

Earlier this month, Packard was elected to be the nominee for the House Republican caucus to succeed Hinch as speaker. Republicans, who control the House chamber 212-187, voted in favor of Packard during a remote meeting. 

Cushing, the Democratic leader, argued Tuesday that the voting process used by the parties’ caucuses to choose their leaders should be allowed for the whole House. 

“If the Republicans can meet (remotely) and select a speaker candidate, and the Democrats can meet remotely and select a speaker candidate, then there’s no reason why we can't meet as a unit and select a new speaker,” said Cushing.

But Packard and Republican leadership has argued that even though a state Supreme Court opinion cleared the House to hold sessions with remote participants, the House cannot begin to meet remotely until it passes a rule authorizing itself to do so, which it has not done. A meeting of the Rules Committee this month did not produce such a recommendation; the committee endorsed a recommendation that House committees include a remote option, but not the entire 400-member House.

Packard has said that the technology required to create a secure voting system would cost the state $300,000.

“In the absence of a rule which permits remote participation, such an expense cannot be justified at the present time, nor is it possible to resolve the significant logistical requirements of a remote session given the short timeframe and the unique challenges of the 400-member House,” Packard wrote. 

Cushing and Democrats have rejected that analysis.

The new concerns about the health and safety of the Jan. 6 meeting plans raise questions over whether Democratic representatives plan to attend. A day before the Dec. 5 meeting, a number of House Democrats – including Cushing himself – announced they would not show up, citing ongoing concerns with the spread of COVID-19 among Republican representatives at the time.

In total, 130 representatives of both parties ended up skipping that meeting, many due to concerns over the virus.

On Tuesday, Cushing, who has Stage IV metastatic prostate cancer, did not directly answer whether he would attend himself. “Certainly, I have extreme risk.”

“We're still hopeful that an accommodation can be reached that will provide for a remote option,” he said. “We reiterate our appeal to the Republican Legislature. We want to move forward.”

As Democrats object, some in the Republican caucus also oppose the drive-in voting plan, but for vastly different reasons.

“We’ve got to get back into meeting in the House. We’ve got to quit worrying about COVID,” said Rep. Dave Testerman in an interview Monday.

Testerman, a Franklin Republican, recently signed a “declaration of independence” letter calling Gov Chris Sununu a tyrant and calling for the dissolution of state government in response to his executive orders around COVID-19.

“I know that probably upsets many people in leadership, but we’ve got to quit being afraid of something that isn’t that bad," he said. 

On Monday, facing pressure from the left and the right, Packard urged members to have faith in the process.  

“Just as the previous administration thought ‘outside the box’ in creating an effective means of holding a session in a risk-mitigated manner, please know that this administration will continue to meet the challenge and allow the House to conduct its business,” he wrote in his letter.

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




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