N.H. Senate passes plan to ratify snow-delayed elections; House approval cloudy

  • A sign warns Salisbury residents that their town hall was closed on March 14, and would be open for both ballot voting and town meeting the following Saturday. Monitor file

Associated Press
Thursday, April 06, 2017

The state Senate on Thursday approved a bill to ratify the results of town elections that were postponed because of a snowstorm.

The issue is far from settled, however, as the matter must go back to the House of Representatives, where a committee on Tuesday killed a similar proposal.

Some 73 towns rescheduled their March 14 elections because of the storm that brought blizzard-like conditions and more than a foot of snow to much of the state. Although state law requires towns to hold annual elections on the second Tuesday in March, many relied on another law allowing town moderators to move the “voting day of a meeting” in the event of a weather emergency.

The confusion raised questions about the legality of the results in towns that postponed their elections, including financing for municipal construction and other projects.

Sen. Jeff Woodburn, a Democrat from Whitefield, originally proposed a bill to simply ratify the results of the postponed elections. Under an amendment approved Thursday by the Senate, towns that moved their elections could ratify the results after a public hearing and a vote of their governing body.

“This balances the need for towns to quickly ratify election results while giving the voters a voice in the solution through a public meeting,” said Sen. Regina Birdsell, a Republican from Hampstead and chairwoman of the Senate Election Law and Internal Affairs Committee.

Woodburn said the amendment wasn’t perfect, but he was pleased that the Senate recognized the need to act quickly. He urged the House to agree.

On Tuesday, the House Election Law Committee killed an attempt to give towns the option of holding another election to clarify the results of delayed elections.

That five-hour meeting reflected the uncertainty that officials feel with events that have never happened before in New Hampshire history: All its votes ended in 10-10 ties.

Without a resolution, the legal status of decisions made by voters in the 73 towns that shifted voting from March 14 remains up in the air – in particular, towns and school districts cannot raise any money for bonded warrant articles until the legal issue is settled.

According to Secretary of State William Gardner, the law regarding changing the “voting day of the meeting” refers to separate meetings during which voters decide on a town’s annual budget and other business, not to elections. But town officials said they got little or no guidance from the state until the afternoon before the storm, when Republican Gov. Chris Sununu urged them to go ahead with elections as planned or else leave themselves vulnerable to lawsuits alleging voter suppression – and by then, a number had already announced the decision to postpone voting.