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Secretary of State, towns come to agreement on town meeting postponement

Monitor staff
Published: 3/27/2019 6:19:10 PM

Exactly when – or if – New Hampshire is rocked by another town meeting day blizzard is unclear.

But after three years of acrimony between towns and the Secretary of State’s office over how to proceed, lawmakers may have a solution that all sides can go along with.

In a unanimous vote Thursday, the Senate passed Senate Bill 104, which would allow towns to postpone and reschedule elections in weather and other emergencies.

Crafted by Sen. James Gray, the legislation allows moderators to make that postponement provided that the National Weather Service has issued a winter storm warning, blizzard warning or ice storm warning. That decision must be made by 6 p.m. on the Monday immediately before Tuesday town elections, according to the bill.

And if multiple towns are voting in concert – for instance cooperative school districts or shared water districts – the moderators of the towns must coordinate with each other, and at least a plurality must agree.

The bill opens up the absentee voting process by allowing anyone to vote absentee ahead of town meeting if he or she has concerns about their safety in a storm.

All postponed elections would be rescheduled to two weeks after the original election, according to the bill. The delay would not be available in the case of a special election for a city or ward officer.

The proposal secured a rare consensus from the Secretary of State’s office and the New Hampshire Municipal Association, both of whom had been at odds after two back-to-back years’ of nor’easters walloped the state on town meeting day in 2017 and 2018.

In both cases, moderators had requested the authority to postpone elections, even as Secretary of State Bill Gardner said that the law as written did not provide that authority. While exceptions were made for towns that postponed in 2017, the office took a harder line approach against towns that deviated in 2018.

An effort last year to find a legislative solution to the process fell short after the House and Senate failed to broker a compromise between an approach that would favor town control and one that would give Gardner authority.

But both parties said that a year of negotiations with moderators, attended by Gray, produced a compromise that the two sides could accept.

“It’s very different than any version that has been out there,” Gardner said Thursday.

The bill moves next onto the House.

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