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House meets in Bedford sports complex, votes against remote voting option 

  • Louise Spencer, of Concord, N.H., holds up signs in protest to the in-person gathering of the New Hampshire House of Representatives legislative session held at an indoor sports club, due to the coronavirus, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, in Bedford, N.H. Many legislators wished to attend the session remotely due to the virus outbreak concerns, but were denied. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Monitor staff
Published: 2/24/2021 4:42:29 PM

Another House session, another New Hampshire athletic complex. 

Members of the 400-member body once again gathered on socially distanced folding chairs Wednesday, clicking remotes to vote, peering at flat screens to read bill numbers, and entering into occasionally heated debates on parliamentary rules via microphones ushered around by staff from row to row. 

This time, the venue of choice was the New Hampshire Sportsplex in Bedford. For the five previous meetings, the body had met at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, three times in the indoor hockey arena, once on the field hockey field, and once in the car park nearby.

Members had mixed opinions.

“It’s an (Americans with Disabilites Act) compliant building. I think the social distancing exceeds anything you’ll see on an airplane, anything you’ll see at Market Basket,” said Rep. Jess Edwards, an Auburn Republican, on a lunch break outside the complex. Other Republicans agreed.

For Democrats, the in-person meeting was in some ways a point of frustration. On Monday, the U.S. District Court in Concord had struck down a lawsuit by Democratic members aimed at forcing Speaker Sherman Packard to include a remote voting option for members with health conditions that would make them susceptible for COVID-19.

On Wednesday, the House voted down an effort to achieve that via a House rule. By a vote of 157-197, the body rejected a rule that would allow members with documented health conditions to vote remotely due to concerns about the coronavirus. 

“This really is a genuine good faith compromise being offered from the back bench,” said Rep. Timothy Smith, a Manchester Democrat who said his proposed rule had not come from Democratic leadership. “I would ask for your support not on my behalf but on behalf of a small number of representatives with serious medical conditions who should not be disenfranchised and would like to represent their constituents throughout the remainder of this disaster we find ourselves in.”

Unlike previous proposed rules allowing any member to participate remotely, Smith said his rule would be targeted to those with documented conditions.

Deputy Speaker Steven Smith, a Charlestown Republican, countered that the technology didn't exist to properly facilitate allowing a remote option, and he said that the Speaker should not be tasked with deciding whose medical conditions were sufficient to justify remote voting. The vote fell largely along party lines.

The in-person meeting requirement has meant that Rep. David Cote, House Democrats’ second in command, has been unable to attend a House session since March 2020 due to coronary artery disease.

On Wednesday, Co te, watched from afar, along with a several other representatives of both parties who could not attend. About 350 of the 400 members showed up in total. 

“I have been a member of the House since 1982,” Cote told the Monitor in a Monday interview. “...Obviously it’s very difficult.”

 Still, Edwards and other Republicans maintained that the rules were fair.

“I think  o ne of the cruelest things that happens in life is everyone gets really old,” he said, speaking of older members with health conditions. “And at some point, they get to the point in their age where they can’t participate fully in society.

“...It applies to everything,” he added. “Life happens.” 

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