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Secretary of State is opposed to bill to ratify results for towns that rescheduled elections

State House Bureau

March 15. 2017 8:18PM
A plow clears Donati Drive in Hooksett pedestrian during Tuesday's Nor'easter. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD — Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, has introduced legislation he says will ratify the decision dozens of towns made on Tuesday to reschedule elections and town meetings as a blizzard bore down on New England.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who advised communities to hold their elections on the designated Election Day, said he opposes any blanket immunity for those who decided to do otherwise.

Woodburn told the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday that his bill would ratify only actions taken on Tuesday, while the Legislature studies a way to resolve conflicting language in state statutes for the long term.

More than 30 towns or school districts reported to the New Hampshire Union Leader that they would be rescheduling ballot voting, town meeting or district meetings to another day.

Gardner says the question of rescheduling town or school district meetings merits further study, but that ballot voting must take place on the same day in every precinct.

“I think it would be a good idea to study it,” he said regarding town meetings. “But voting day should be locked in, period. You don’t fool around with elections. If you can have it tomorrow like some are, or Friday like some are, or next Tuesday. If you can have it any day, you can have it a month from now.”

Woodburn said his home town of Whitefield held ballot voting, but rescheduled town meeting to the following Tuesday.

“This simply ratifies that whatever those election results are will be honored, respected and ratified, whatever dates they took place,” he said.

Sen. Martha Fuller Clark said the Legislature should support the decisions town officials made on the basis of public safety.

“I would hope we would understand that those communities that decided to move their elections did it because of forecasts that actually proved to be true,” she said. “Trees came down; roads were closed; it was truly dangerous.”

The committee voted unanimously to accept Woodburn’s bill, even though the deadline for filing bills has passed.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, who made the motion to accept the bill, said, “My advice is, that since the Secretary of State has said it may be premature to give a blanket authorization, to bring the bill in as a study bill only. But you can write it any way you want.”

Afterward, Woodburn confirmed that he plans to submit a bill giving the towns that rescheduled their voting protections against lawsuits or other challenges to the outcomes.

Cordell Johnston, government affairs counsel for the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said language in town meeting statutes that gives moderators the authority to reschedule is clear.

“We think the question is settled,” he said. “We thought it was very clear from the beginning that moderators have the authority to postpone. We don’t think there is any question on that.”

According to Gardner, the flexibility for moderators is in reference to town meetings or school district meetings, but not ballot voting.

He warned of all sorts of confusion that could arise if towns vote on separate days. An example of that can be found in the Timberlane Regional School District.

Danville and Sandown voted Tuesday, while the other two towns in the district, Atkinson and Plaistow, moved their elections to March 21.

Sandown posted the results from its votes on the proposed Timberlane warrant articles on its website, while Danville did not. The results showed Sandown voters supported the proposed school budget and a new contract for support staff.

A similar situation is expected in the Exeter Region Cooperative School District, where voters from the six towns in the district will vote on a nearly $22 million plan to expand and renovate the Cooperative Middle School in Stratham.

Brentwood, East Kingston, Exeter, Kensington and Stratham decided to hold their elections on Thursday, while Newfields, the sixth town in the district, postponed its election until March 23.

A spokesman said Gov. Chris Sununu is monitoring the situation closely and has already encouraged the Legislature to clarify the statutes.

Union Leader Correspondent Jason Schreiber contributed to this article.

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