Voting booth at the polls

The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the state on behalf of two college students who claim a new law that requires a New Hampshire driver’s license to vote violates their constitutional rights and represents a 21st century “poll tax.”

CONCORD — The long-running debate over who has the power to postpone town election day is likely to be resolved by legislation now working its way through the State House.

(See town election previews at unionleader.com)

Town moderators, who for the past two years have argued they should have that authority, are empowered by Senate Bill 104 to postpone and reschedule town election day, which ordinarily takes place on the second Tuesday of March.

The bill was introduced last Wednesday by Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester, to a receptive Senate Election Committee and with the endorsement of the Secretary of State and the New Hampshire Municipal Association — two sides that have been at odds over the issue since snowstorms buried the region on town election day in March 2017 and again in 2018.

“I just looked at the weather for Tuesday and it’s 37 degrees and sunny,” Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said.

The effort to clarify who gets to cancel town voting stems from a 2017 election day blizzard. 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.

Last year, another storm hit on election day, March 13, and the moderator in Washington, a small town in Sullivan County, moved that town’s election 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.

Impasse last year

Lawmakers reached an impasse on the issue last year, leaving the status quo in place and a lot of questions unanswered, which is one reason Scanlan and many other election officials are hoping for good weather on Tuesday.

The Senate passed a bill giving the authority to the Secretary of State, while the House passed a bill giving the power to town moderators. The two sides could not reach a compromise.

Without new legislation, there is no provision to postpone an election except an emergency declaration by the governor.

That should change by town election 2020 if SB 104 becomes law, which now appears likely.

The bill states that if the National Weather Service issues a winter storm warning, blizzard warning or ice storm warning on a date when an election is scheduled, the moderator may, after consulting with town officials, postpone the election if he or she reasonably believes travel conditions will be hazardous or unsafe.

The moderator will need to document the decision and notify the secretary of state by phone or email while using “whatever means are available” to inform voters of the postponement and rescheduled date.

The decision to postpone has to be made no later than 6 p.m. Monday the day before the election.

Accidents, fire, natural disaster or other emergencies “which the moderator reasonably believes render the polling place unsafe” also qualify as reasons for cancellation.

An amendment proposed by the Municipal Association adds language that calls on the moderator “to the extent practical” to consult with the governing body, the clerk and, as appropriate, the police chief, fire chief, road agent and local emergency management director.

Cities get option, too

If the bill becomes law, the local option will apply to cities as well, with all references to the moderator applying to the city clerk.

“It’s a great bill,” said Margaret Byrnes, executive director of the NH Municipal Association. “It preserves the moderator’s authority to postpone, and puts in place a process that addresses legitimate issues that have come up in recent years.”

There’s still some work to be done to address contingencies like multi-town school districts, but both sides are confident those matters can be resolved.

“There’s been a lot of discussions, and we’ve engaged moderators to participate in the discussion and tell us what they think and how it should be,” Scanlan said.

dsolomon@unionleader.com