Town moderators in New Hampshire seamlessly postponed nearly 80 town elections and meetings Tuesday after a snowstorm began overnight.
This simple act did not come about easily. It took the Legislature two years to resolve a simmering dispute between then-Secretary of State Bill Gardner and legal experts who represented local officials.
Six years ago, several town moderators responded to a massive March snowstorm by postponing their annual meetings. At that time, Gov. Chris Sununu had warned local officials they could be on shaky legal ground.
Gardner said the towns didn’t have the legal right to postpone their town elections.
This controversy was over an ambiguity in the state law. Back in 2017, a law on the books granted moderators the power to postpone town meetings for inclement weather.
Yet Gardner and others pointed to a different state law that said towns must hold the election of their town officers on the second Tuesday in March. The only exception to that was if town officials had already adopted an alternate election date on the second Tuesday in May, he said.
This provision made no mention of delaying the elections for bad weather.
“From our perspective there is no provision that allows for the actual statutory date of the election of officers to be moved, and we cannot recall it ever happening for weather or any other reason,” said David Scanlan, who was Gardner’s deputy at the time.
Scanlan became secretary of state following Gardner’s retirement in early 2021.
At the time, the New Hampshire Municipal Association said its lawyers and legal counsel, representing 150 towns, concluded that moderators could change their dates.
Gardner’s opposition stunned the group.
“That all changed on Monday morning, when a front-page Union Leader headline blared, ‘We don’t have snow days … for elections,’ quoting the secretary of state and indicating that a town meeting can be postponed, but a town election cannot,” the municipal association lamented in a March 2017 newsletter.
The association, which lobbies for cities and towns, criticized the process.
“Clearly, however, there was much disarray and confusion by Monday afternoon, with many voters still hearing that towns could not postpone their elections, even as many towns were doing exactly that,” the association said at the time. “Confusion of that magnitude on such an important local issue in the midst of a major snowstorm was clearly a disservice to municipalities and citizens.”
Two years to agreement
When Democratic lawmakers proposed legislation to give town officials that authority in 2017, Gardner opposed the move, and that bill died.
In 2019, both sides came together on compromise language in a bill that Sununu signed into law.
Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester, authored that bill. He recalled the Legislature had to pass another bill to legally endorse bond issues that were approved at town meetings caught up in the dispute.
“There was a whole bunch of cleanup we had to do back then. We actually used that as leverage to get both sides to reach agreement,” Gray said.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and in response, Sununu signed an executive order that gave town officials broad latitude for the scheduling of annual sessions during the public health emergency.
The Legislature also passed a law giving towns flexibility to hold their elections during different months.
Some towns held them outdoors, some held them in drive-through form and some set up online versions.
This week’s snowstorm was the first widespread use of the 2019 law. The same law permits anyone to vote by absentee if they live in towns that come under a National Weather Service “winter event advisory.”
As a result, lines formed at town clerk’s offices as residents showed up on Monday by 5 p.m. to turn in their absentee ballots.
The law requires the replacement date for that town election to be two weeks after the original date.
State election officials said those absentee ballots will still be valid even if the town postpones the election.
The state’s absentee-voting law for other elections is more restrictive. Only those physically unable to get to the polls due to disability, work requirement or religious observance can vote by absentee.