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Snow delay for town meetings?

Mar 14, 2017

BY: CCNH-LFDA Highlights

With a Nor'easter barreling down on New Hampshire today, many New Hampshire town moderators have announced a postponement of town meeting day, traditionally held on the first Tuesday in March.

The move has sparked significant controversy and possibly exposed a genuine ambiguity in state law. New Hampshire policy regarding rescheduling town meeting day can be connected to two areas of state law. On the one hand, RSA 40:4 specifically grants town moderators the power to postpone town meeting deliberative sessions or “voting day” due to inclement weather.

However, a different section of state law specifies that towns must hold the election of town officers on the second Tuesday in March, unless they’ve previously adopted an alternate date (the second Tuesday in May). No mention here is made of delaying elections due to bad weather.

At the heart of the issue seems to be an implied distinction between voting on warrant articles and the election of town officers. The power to delay votes on warrant articles is clearly granted to town moderators, but a similar power to postpone the election of town officials is not mentioned.

State officials have bravely waded in, with Gov. Chris Sununu issuing a statement strongly recommending that towns keep to their Tuesday meeting day, noting that any that do opt to delay do so “at their own risk”, legally speaking.

Sununu encouraged towns that are delaying elections to at least have an official on site at polling places to offer residents who turned up an option to vote by absentee ballot.

The New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office told reporters their official position was that state law did not grant moderators the power to delay a town election. “From our perspective there is no provision that allows for the actual statutory date of the election officers to be moved and we cannot recall it ever happening for weather or any other reason," said Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlon.

However, it happens that this is not, in fact, the first time New Hampshire towns have put off elections due to a poorly timed snowstorm.

In 1888, a record-breaking blizzard dumped over two feet of snow across the Granite State, leading many towns to delay their town meeting, as residents were effectively shut into their homes. As Warren Brown’s History of Hampton Falls, N.H., published in 1900, notes, "It was impossible for people to get to the annual town meeting, and it was postponed until the Saturday following. Hardly any of the towns held their town meetings on the day appointed."

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn issued a joint statement with his counterpart in the House, Rep. Steve Shurtleff, saying they would introduce an emergency measure on Wednesday clarifying the issue. “The legislature must act to eliminate confusion and ensure that any town that needs to postpone their town elections tomorrow due to the impending snowstorm can do so,” the pair wrote.

Supporters of Woodburn’s move argue that town moderators should have the power to postpone town meeting day in cases of inclement weather, to ensure that residents can safely participate in the democratic process.

Opponents counter that holding town meetings on the second Tuesday in March is an important New Hampshire tradition, and express concern that granting moderators the power to change the election date could lead to confusion at the polls. 

Do you think NH towns should have the power to reschedule local elections in cases of inclement weather? Leave a comment below to join the discussion, and we'll present your thoughts to legislators considering this issue. Only comments from NH residents will be counted, so please indicate if you are from NH in your response.

Photo credit: Carol Soules

Comments

Colleen West Coates
- Raymond

Sun, 03/19/2017 - 5:51pm

As an election official in a town that chose to hold elections on 3/14, I wholeheartedly agree that legislators should consider changing the state statutes to allow for weather postponement. The voter, himself, has a choice as to whether to exercise his right to vote or give greater regard to his safety, but the ballot clerks (often retired and older in age) as well as the town officials, maintenance workers, and other supporting employees do not. It is unfair to ask others to risk their personal safety in order to ensure a town election, not to mention the added burden of additional traffic on the emergency personnel and public works (snowplow drivers). I understand the sentiment regarding the tradition of voting day as well as the concern of informing the voter of changes, however, the world has changed since the original intent. Today, technology has increased communication so that every voter can be informed - social media, reverse 911 calls, tv and radio reports all contribute to the ability to reach and inform each and every voter of changes. Perhaps a solution would be to give the control to the Secretary of State to make a state-wide unified decision in the event of a major weather event.

Ronald Chapman
- Troy

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 9:43am

Ever heard of the word SAFETY? When the Governor tells us to stay home due to a severe snow storm, we HAVE to go out and vote? STUPID! Reschedule the day!!!!!! SIMPLE! COMMON SENSE!!!!

Joanne Cranshaw
- Salem

Sat, 03/18/2017 - 8:55pm

Absolitely citicens of our states saftey is # 1

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Christopher Sununu
2 Comments

NH Governor (2016 - present); Executive Councilor (2010 - 2016); Owner/Director, Sununu Enterprises; CEO, Waterville Valley Ski Resort; Strategic Consultant; Environmental Engineer

Senator, NH Senate (2012 - present); Representative, NH House of Representatives (1988 - 1990); Chairperson, NH Democratic Party (1997 - 1999); Moderator, Town of Dalton; School District Moderator; Historic Real Estate Broker/Developer; Public Sch

Representative, NH House of Representatives (2004 - present), Democratic Leader, NH House of Representatives; Supervisory Deputy U.S. Marshal, U.S. Department of Justice - U.S.

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