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State: Absentee ballots can't be used for bad weather

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 11. 2018 9:26PM

CONCORD — Towns can’t reschedule their local elections because of bad weather, and they can’t just hand out absentee ballots to voters who don’t want to drive to the polls in a snowstorm.

That’s what Rindge town officials did last March, which got them a cautionary note from the office of the Attorney General, but no official sanction.

Town and state officials have been at odds over election day postponement since a blizzard on the second Tuesday of March 2017 prompted some towns to reschedule their voting for local officials, despite warnings against such a move from the governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

In the ensuing year, lawmakers could not agree on a new policy and, as fate would have it, another blizzard struck on the second Tuesday of March 2018.

Four different Rindge town officials, knowing the state had warned them against rescheduling the vote, came up with another idea. Using Facebook and text messaging, they advised a large number of voters to come by town hall to pick up absentee ballots in the days before the election.

On March 11, Select Board member Roberta Oeser, running for reelection, sent a text message to an unknown number of recipients, stating “With another large snowstorm forecast for Tuesday, you can still get an absentee ballot at the town office.”

The same day, town moderator Charles Eicher posted on Facebook, “If you know of anyone who is concerned about being able to get to the polls Tuesday because of snow, please remind them that there is still time to file an absentee ballot on Monday.”

On March 12, Town Clerk Nancy Martin posted on the Town of Rindge Facebook account, “NOTICE!! Due to inclement weather for Tuesday, March 13, you may stop by the town clerk’s office today to get an absentee ballot.”

Police Chief Daniel Anair joined the chorus with a March 12 Facebook posting, “If you are worried about getting out and about tomorrow, please file an absentee ballot today.”

Several complaints

In a June 8 letter to all four officials, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Broadhead, with the Election Law Unit, reported receiving several complaints about the notices, but concluded they did not violate election law.

“Although these statements are vague and imprudent because they could have caused confusion among voters, they do not constitute criminal misconduct,” according to Broadhead.

State law allows four reasons to vote by absentee ballot: out of town on election day; observing a religious holiday; inability to vote due to disability; or an employment obligation.

“The mere possibility of a blizzard is not, by itself, a lawful reason to request an absentee ballot,” writes Broadhead.

But each voter who came to get an absentee ballot also filled out the absentee ballot request form, which puts the onus on the voter to attest to his or her qualification to vote that way. The town officials were held harmless.

“None of the statements issued by the town officials constituted an overt act to conspire with or solicit someone to vote unlawfully,” according to Broadhead. “Further, we have received no credible evidence that any voter unlawfully obtained an absentee ballot or cast an illegal vote during the Rindge town election.”

According to the Keene Sentinel, absentee ballot voting in Rindge for the March election was up 463 percent from the year before.

Making copies

With more voters than ever coming in for absentee ballots the day before the election, Town Clerk Martin ran out, and began making photocopies of a blank absentee ballot to keep up with demand.

In so doing, she failed to follow state law requiring the town clerk to sign or initial every photocopied ballot to make it an official ballot.

The unsigned ballots could have been rejected and deducted from the vote count, but Broadhead ruled against that action, because “every copied absentee ballot issued by the clerk contained the same technical defect.”

Roniele Hamilton, a Rindge resident who was among those filing election law complaints, responded to Broadhead soon after his June 8 letter went out.

“Thanks for clearing that up for me,” she wrote in an email.

“Yes, Mr. Broadhead, I am seeing the picture clearly now. No consequences, no problem for any wrongdoing when it comes to election laws.”

Broadhead’s advice to local officials considering absentee ballots on stormy election days: “In any communication about the availability of absentee ballots, include a reference to the actual text of the statute or, at a minimum, indicate the lawful reasons that a voter may request an absentee ballot.”

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