A New Hampshire Senate committee passed the buck Tuesday on whether to ratify the results of town elections postponed by last week's snowstorm, sidestepping thorny questions about who controls the election calendar and whether the delays helped or hurt turnout.
Nearly 80 towns rescheduled their March 14 elections due to the powerful nor'easter that brought blizzard-like conditions and more than a foot snow to much of the state. Though 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 Senate Election Law and International Affairs Committee held a public hearing on a bill that would ratify the results in the affected communities, but Republicans declined to recommend its passage in part because some towns still haven't voted. The committee voted 3-2 along party lines to instead recommend a study committee, which the majority cast as a placeholder to ensure they could meet deadlines for getting a bill to the House, where they hope it will be changed.
At issue is whether the law regarding changing the "voting day of the meeting" refers to elections or to the separate meetings during which voters decide on a town's annual budget and other business.
Secretary of State William Gardner told the committee that law does not apply to elections, and that towns are required to follow the detailed calendar his office issues every two years listing key deadlines and dates. But Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards said that point was debatable.
"The confusion was real," she said.
Town officials testified that they got little or no guidance from the state as they made their decision 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.
Gail Cromwell, a selectwoman in Temple, said officials there decided to postpone after the town road agent said he couldn't keep the polling place's parking lot plowed.
"We easily could've had people with broken hips," she said.
While she and others argued that they didn't want to restrict voting to only those who could brave the storm, others argued that postponing elections disenfranchised those who didn't hear about the change or weren't able to be in town on the make-up day.
Former state Sen. Bob Clegg, a Republican from Hudson, railed against the "arrogance" of town officials who postponed their contests, casting the decision as an insult to veterans who died protecting America democracy.
"The actions taken deprived me and many others of our right to vote, to decide the future of our community, and now you offer up to the perpetrators of this theft, immunity," he said. "What do you offer me and the thousands of others who were disenfranchised?"
According to Gardner, of about three dozen of the state's larger towns, turnout in the towns that held elections during the storm was higher than in those that voted later. But beyond turnout, the confusion also could jeopardize long term financing for municipal construction and other projects, according to an attorney who works with towns on such financing said.
Committee members said they wanted to protect those projects, but Republicans said they were uncomfortable doing so before all towns had finished voting. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, argued unsuccessfully that advancing the bill as written was necessary to reassure voters in towns that haven't voted.
"Why would anybody waste their time going to a meeting tonight ... or today to vote for town offices if just by the nature of the move, it is a worthless, unprotected election?" he said.
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