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'God bless you' cited in firing of Derry election worker

Union Leader Correspondent

November 09. 2014 9:23PM

DERRY — The Catholic League has sent a letter of protest to New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner over the recent firing of a Derry election worker.

Ruth Provencal was terminated last month for saying “God bless you” to voters and other forms of “electioneering,” Renee Routhier, chairman of Derry’s Supervisors of the Checklist, said Saturday.

In Friday’s letter, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, challenges the firing and questions the application of state law, RSA 659:44. The law, which states that “no election officer shall electioneer while in the performance of his duties” is “entirely reasonable,” but the application of it is “entirely unreasonable,” Donohue wrote.

“As president of the nation’s largest Catholic civil rights organization, I would like to know what part of this law was violated by Ms. Provencal?” wrote Donohue, who went on to question if any voter had registered a complaint, and if so, how did Provencal’s remark “influence the voter’s decision?”

Gardner said Sunday night he had not yet received the letter.

He described electioneering as “the act of trying to persuade someone to vote a certain way.”

For example: “A poll worker could not display a button saying vote for a certain candidate,” Gardner said.

Electioneering is considered a misdemeanor under state statute.

Routhier said Provencal had engaged in a pattern of electioneering over an 18-month period; it involved more than saying “God bless you” to voters, she said. Routhier said she made the decision to fire Provencal after the Sept. 9 primary and before this month’s election, telephoning her to inform her of her decision and the reasons she was being terminated.

“At each election, she did something different, and we discussed it,” Routhier said. “And unfortunately when I called her, all she grabbed onto was the last thing I said and blew it all out of proportion.”

Provencal said Saturday that saying “God bless you” to voters during the primary was the only reason Routhier mentioned for her firing

“I use it to thank the voters and when someone sneezes, I would say ‘God bless you,’” said Provencal, who described herself as a devout Catholic.

She said she didn’t do anything to influence voters and didn’t engage in electioneering. Routhier would not elaborate on what forms of electioneering Provencal allegedly engaged in.

“We have to be politically correct at the polls; I can’t allow certain things to go on because it falls under electioneering,” Routhier said. “As I said, it should have been done sooner because she was electioneering, and that is illegal.”

Provencal, who is in her 60s, said she had been working at elections over the past few years as a volunteer who was paid a small stipend for each event. She typically worked as a ballot clerk at such events as a school district vote, the presidential election in 2012 and Town Election in March.

During the September primary, Provencal said she was assigned to assist voters registered as independents who had switched temporarily to Democrat or Republican to vote. After voting, Provencal said she would change the voters back to their independent status.

Provencal said she said “God bless you” to elderly and disabled people at the polls, or if someone sneezed. In one instance, she said she recognized a friend who was in a wheelchair and had just recently had cancer surgery. She said she told him “God bless you” as a way of thanking him for coming to the polls.

Since the voters had already cast ballots, she said she didn’t see how her actions could have had any influence on voting.

“There is no way I could have swayed anyone’s votes,” said Provencal, who estimated she had said “God bless you” to fewer than a dozen voters. Provencal said Routhier called her on Oct. 30 to tell her she was being let go.

“The word ‘God’ apparently was under her rules and laws, and she said that’s not allowed,” Provencal said.

Provencal said she was stunned by Routhier’s call.

“It really blew me out of the water, and I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” Provencal said. “I mean, God bless you — you are going to pull me for that?”

Provencal said she felt her rights of free speech had been violated.

“I thought that this was still free America and you had the right to say how you feel; and if you wanted to say something and pass a blessing to someone who’s very old on their way out, I didn’t see anything wrong with it,” Provencal said.

In his letter, Donohue wrote that Provencal had made the “allegedly offensive remark after voters had cast their ballots.” He cited the example of how the U.S. Supreme Court opens every session by saying, “God Bless the United States and this Honorable Court.’’

Donohue wrote, “Now if saying ‘God bless you’ is proof of undue influence on a voter’s decision, it seems logical to conclude that the justices of the Supreme Court are compromising their rulings by allowing this invocation.”

He concluded, “any fair-minded person, including atheists, would no doubt conclude that the offender in this case is not Ms. Provencal — it is Ms. Routhier.”

On Saturday, Routhier said she hadn’t yet seen the letter from the Catholic League.

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