State Sen. Regina Birdsell: Storm clouds still hang over town meetings

For the Monitor
Saturday, June 09, 2018

Thanks to the Municipal Association’s lobbying efforts, it appears as though blizzards – like that of March 2017 – will maintain the power to create more chaos than the typical spring snowstorm.

The blizzard of March 2017 not only crippled portions of the state, but also coincided with that year’s municipal elections. Under a tortured interpretation of the law, the Municipal Association advised town clerks and moderators across the state they could reschedule elections. Some clerks and moderators took that unprecedented advice and sporadically rescheduled their elections to later dates. However, at the same time the secretary of state and governor asserted that towns did not have the legal authority to unilaterally postpone elections. Amidst all the confusion, there was no definitive solution.

The state needs clarification regarding the rescheduling of municipal elections. Senate Bill 438 would have done just that.

Although the bill’s bipartisan compromise made it through committee of conference, the dissent from the House echoed in the Municipal Association’s protests ultimately voted down the bill and any assurance of future clarity. Unfortunately, both were convinced that this legislation was incompatible with and an affront to local control.

Now, our state is left with the status quo, and the issue is unresolved. When it comes to statewide elections, the law is clear: Elections cannot be rescheduled for any reason. However, the law regarding municipal elections is less definitive. State statute allows for towns to reschedule deliberative sessions, and yet nothing clearly defines the process for the election of local officers or anything that is voted on with an official ballot.

In the bill, we defined the two ways that an election can be rescheduled. First, the governor may declare a state of emergency, which would then allow the secretary of state to postpone the election if he or she believes that an emergency exists that would prevent voters from reaching the polls. Second, if a town moderator or clerk notifies the secretary of state that an extreme weather emergency or imminent threat to public health or safety makes conducting the election impossible, the secretary of state then has the authority to decide whether to postpone the election.

In all cases, elections would have been postponed uniformly across regional school districts or when ballot questions will be determined by a cumulative vote by more than one voting location.

I am a firm believer in local control and always support the rights of towns to make decisions that would have an impact on them when practical. However, this is not one of those cases. New Hampshire needs more consistency than we had in March 2017.

When town moderators reschedule elections at will, when they are advised by the Municipal Association to disregard the laws, and when there are no measures to ensure clarity and unity across New Hampshire, we create confusion and disarray not unlike a blizzard itself.

The Legislature was forced to step in to ratify the March 2017 town election results because in cases where bonds were authorized, the lawyers facilitating the bond issues were not convinced the votes were legal.

Of all the unnecessary problems this confusion creates, the most egregious is its effect on citizens. When elections are rescheduled without consistency and clarity, citizens may not have the information they need to participate in an election that has been moved. This current situation has been deemed preferable to entrusting the responsibility of rescheduling elections to the chief election officer in New Hampshire, the secretary of state.

Railing against the legislation, the Municipal Association claimed that no bill was better than the committee of conference report. Rather than being blinded by a longstanding feud with the secretary of state’s office, the Municipal Association should have realized that currently no one has authority to reschedule an election. The new legislation would have given municipalities a voice in a process for election postponement, but the Municipal Association decided compromise was not for them and urged House members to kill the bill. Mission accomplished.

While it seemed as if the 2017 storm was unlikely to recur in the near future, we had a storm on town meeting day in 2018 as well. If this does not prove that New Hampshire needs to be ready with clear laws in place to avoid confusion and potential legal consequences, I’m not sure what does.

Until the next legislative session, the only recourse left is to pray for better weather on town meeting day next year.

(Regina Birdsell, a Hampstead Republican, represents District 19 in the New Hampshire Senate.)