Legislature wraps up session with stalemate on local election scheduling | New Hampshire
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Legislature wraps up session with stalemate on local election scheduling

By DAVE SOLOMON
State House Bureau

May 23. 2018 10:39PM
Hooksett kept its Town Meeting polls open this year, despite snow burying some of the signs informing voters. (UNION LEADER FILE)



CONCORD — The House and Senate ended the current session deadlocked over the question of who gets to decide when local elections should be rescheduled due to bad weather or other adverse conditions, leaving the status quo in place and a lot of questions unanswered.

The House on Wednesday defeated a Senate bill designed to settle the matter in a lopsided 225-118 vote as lawmakers concluded their business for 2018.

The Senate wanted the Secretary of State to be the final arbiter of any election rescheduling. Local officials could reschedule an election, but only with the approval of the Secretary of State, according to the Senate-passed version of SB 438.

The House version of the same bill, responding to the concerns of town managers, select boards and local election officials, gave moderators the authority to postpone and reschedule local elections, traditionally held the second Tuesday in March.

A nearly year-long effort to settle the question failed to resolve the rift between long-serving Secretary of State Bill Gardner and local election officials.

House negotiators in conference with senators agreed to present the Senate version to the House one more time, in the hope that some procedure could be put in place even if it was to be amended at a later date.

But the House was in no mood to compromise, as representatives were lobbied heavily in the past week by town managers and moderators. Several representatives commented that the House was not adequately represented in negotiations with the Senate, which held firm to its position.

Rep. William Marsh, R-Brookfield, serves as a moderator in his town, and says he was not aware of a single moderator in support of the Senate proposal.

“Expecting the Secretary of State in Concord to be aware of conditions in every town in New Hampshire is just unreasonable,” he said.

Marsh and other opponents of the bill said its new definitions of what constitutes a town meeting versus an election would only add to the confusion.

Rep. Ken Gidge, D-Nashua, said emergency responders in his district urged support for the Senate bill in the hope that some standard procedure could be put into place across the state.

“If you can’t trust a Secretary of State after so many years of service, how can you trust 50 or 60 people you do not know, and where there are no checks and balances,” said Gidge. “If we do not pass this bill, there is no question there will be chaos because there is no one to call and see if something can be postponed.”

Gidge was alluding to the fact that without new legislation, there is no provision to postpone an election except an emergency declaration by the governor.

The effort to clarify who gets to cancel town voting stems from last year’s blizzard on the second Tuesday in March.

The storm threw municipal elections into chaos, as some town moderators decided to postpone elections, Secretary of State Bill Gardner said they could not, and the governor said towns would do so at their own risk.

This year the moderator in Washington, a small town in Sullivan County, postponed the March 13 election because of inclement weather and moved it to March 17.

Attorney General Gordon MacDonald later ruled that the moderator had no authority to postpone the election and her conduct under current law could have been a criminal misdemeanor. State prosecutors said the alternative date did not give local residents enough notice and ordered the postponed election to take place in April.

Rep. Barbara Griffin, R-Goffstown, said voters are more interested in seeing a procedure put into place, than the turf battle between the Secretary of State and town moderators.

“Your communities have asked you to do something to allow for the continuance (of an election) to occur, and they don’t really care who says they can,” she said.

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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