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Deerfield Town Moderator Jack Hutchinson clears a path in the snow for voters at Town Hall during the March 14 snowstorm. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Analysis: Blizzard town meeting turnout better than those that postponed

With a blizzard forecast for town meeting voting day in March, about 130 Auburn residents rushed to town hall the day before to fill out absentee ballots.

And about 50 new voters registered that snowy March 14, “more than I could expect during a blizzard,” Town Clerk Kathleen Sylvia said this week. “People definitely had an interest one way or the other.”

In a record turnout, voters rejected a nearly $25 million school bond after a similar, cheaper article failed last year.

Greenland postponed its vote to March 21 and saw its biggest turnout ever, fueled by a warrant article for full-day kindergarten.

“Truthfully, we had so many people come in and say ‘thank you’ because they wouldn’t have come out that (snowstorm) day because the weather was horrible,” said Town Clerk/Tax Collector Marge Morgan.

About 20 percent of towns that kept their voting to the traditional second Tuesday in March saw a turnout that surpassed their town’s previous 10-year average (2007-2016), according to a Union Leader analysis of voting returns submitted to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Among towns that postponed their votes, the number of communities that exceeded their 10-year average was close to 3 percentage points lower.

A dispute over whether towns could postpone the vote pitted Secretary of State William Gardner — who told the New Hampshire Union Leader that state law didn’t provide for “snow days” for town meeting elections — and what turned out to be 73 towns that postponed their voting.

The Legislature is working on a solution.

“Overall, you had a better turnout in the towns that voted on the 14th, the traditional date,” Gardner said.

Auburn Town Administrator Bill Herman said it’s difficult sometimes to say what caused voters to come out to the polls or stay home.

“Every town and every election is a little different,” Herman said. “It’s an interesting analysis, but it doesn’t, in and of itself, explain either way why they’re up or down.”

Candia moved its voting to March 16, drawing 891 voters, higher than the 10-year average.

“I think the date had nothing to do with it,” said Candia Town Moderator Clark Thyn. “I think turnout is driven by what’s on the ballot.”

Salem and Pelham moved their voting to avoid the storm and saw their lowest turnout numbers since at least 2007.

“I think changing the date probably had something to do with it” being lower, said Pelham Town Clerk Dorothy Marsden.

Between 2007 and 2016, Pelham averaged 2,995 voters for the yearly town meeting balloting, but only 1,445 turned out on March 16 this year.

In Bedford, 2,493 people voted this year for the March 16 vote, the lowest since at least 2007.

The 10-year average between 2007 and 2016 was 3,617.

Judy Silva, executive director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said whether towns had a controversial warrant article on the ballot, in some cases, “played in their decision on whether to postpone or not.”

She said the municipal association advised towns they had the authority to postpone their voting.

In Greenland, Morgan said, officials decided to postpone for safety reasons, including the fact that many elderly residents live in town.

“We were almost double what we usually had,” she said of turnout.

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