Bill would let N.H. secretary of state postpone local elections in emergencies 

  • Loudon resident Chuck Cormier battles his way through the snowstorm and back to his truck Tuesday, March 14, 2017, after voting at Loudon Town Hall. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 1/16/2018 7:03:46 PM

The scene last March is hard to forget: a mass of scheduled town meetings and local elections across the state, and a powerful blizzard threatening to derail them. Facing dangerous driving conditions, many towns opted to delay the elections entirely – a first in more than a century. As the snow piled up, so did questions about whether towns had the authority to postpone meeting day; the secretary of state’s office declared that they did not, while Gov. Chris Sununu suggested they could but shouldn’t.

Many towns did anyway.

Ten months after the confusing and contentious day, lawmakers are seeking to clarify the election postponement procedure. Senate Bill 438 would allow the secretary of state to postpone town elections in cases of emergencies.

Under the bill, that delay can be triggered by the governor, under a formal state of emergency, or it can be made at the request of the town moderator or town clerk in the case of a weather emergency or “imminent threat to public health or safety.” If the election is delayed, it will be automatically rescheduled to two weeks after the initial voting day, with a requirement that towns give ample notice of the change.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, is a bipartisan fix to an unclear situation. But town officials have taken issue with the bill’s underlying mechanism: putting the postponement decision into the hands of the secretary of state’s office. At a hearing Tuesday, clerks and moderators objected to the change, which they said would take away a vital lever of local control.

“It takes away our ability to self-govern,” said Lori Radke, Bedford town clerk.

Radke argued that because towns, not the secretary of state, are responsible for all costs associated with local elections – including ballot expenses and wages for personnel – it should be towns that make the call on what’s financially viable.

Other local officials agreed. Newmarket Town Manager Steve Fournier said that local officials often have the best grasp on what makes sense for their towns during a weather emergency. Newmarket, for example, is close-knit and may suffer fewer travel complications in the event of a storm, while neighboring towns might face other conditions, he said.

“I feel very strongly that moderators are in a better position to make these decisions,” he said.

But Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said the bill is meant to allow for flexibility and to ensure fairness to voters. Among the concerns raised last spring centered on cooperative school districts comprising multiple towns; if one town delayed, its voters might be swayed by the voting decisions of the other towns.

SB 438 would allow the secretary of state to take a statewide view and postpone elections for whole school districts. And he said the bill would account for large holes in election procedure under RSA 669 – holes he said were exposed during the uncertainty last March.

“What occurred last spring was on a very large scale,” Scanlan said. “And in that type of a situation ... it’s going to be recognizing a situation that’s either regional or statewide, in a matter that is uniform so that all voters know in that region what to expect.”

And according to co-sponsor Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, the bill was meant to carve out a middle ground amid the confusion.

“This committee has to find some balance,” he said. “We have sides that are unwilling to compromise, and there should be a way to clarify the law.”

Woodburn said that, while he values local control, the system has to account for state planning as well.

“We are not a feudal society. ... We have to have some basic coordination,” he said.

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

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