Panel studies election scheduling power after storm chaos
By HOLLY RAMER
Oct. 24, 2017
CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Seven months after a snowstorm prompted dozens of towns to delay their local elections, New Hampshire lawmakers are still sorting out what should happen next time if the weather doesn't cooperate.
Nearly 80 towns rescheduled their March 14 elections when a powerful storm brought blizzard-like conditions and more than a foot of snow to much of the state. Although towns are required under state law 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. They also complained that 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.
Lawmakers quickly passed legislation allowing towns that postponed their elections to ratify the results by holding public hearings and having town governing bodies vote for ratification. They also created a committee to study the issue in hopes of avoiding further confusion. The group has until Nov. 1 to make recommendations, but while members generally agree on the need for detailed postponement procedures, disagreement remains on who can make the call — state or local officials.
Under a proposal drafted by the New Hampshire Municipal Association, town moderators would have the power to postpone elections due to weather emergencies after consulting with local governing and emergency management officials, but the only allowable date would be two weeks later. Such decisions could be made up to two hours before the scheduled session, but no more than 48 hours ahead.
"I feel very strong about this, that it needs to be at the local level," Lori Radke, the town clerk in Bedford, told the committee Tuesday.
Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan countered that while the town of Bedford "runs incredibly well," that isn't the case in all of the state's more than 230 communities.
"You don't have to think too hard when you give that discretion to local officials, there could be problems," he said.
He proposed a system in which the governor would declare a state of an emergency, allowing the secretary of state to postpone elections either statewide or on a regional basis. Towns would continue to have some discretion in emergencies that affect only their towns — such as a town office burning down or a shooting, he said.
Rep. Kathleen Hoelzel, R-Raymond, said she doesn't think the state should be taken completely out of the decision. Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, argued that weather can vary widely from the Statehouse to the North Country, and that local officials are in the best position to make the decision.