Legal questions arise from town meeting changes

  • Jeff Rota of Peterborough, a seasonal Peterborough DPW building and grounds crew employee, helps to set up voting booths on Monday at the Town House.

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Thursday, March 16, 2017

Many towns throughout New Hampshire have postponed their elections due to Tuesday’s snowstorm, but many government officials are still unsure as to whether or not the move fell in line with state law. 

Competing RSAs lead to a lot of confusion throughout the day on Monday, as towns grappled with whether elections should be postponed. Those in favor of the change cited RSA 40:4, which gives town moderators the ability to “postpone and reschedule the deliberative session or voting day of the meeting to another reasonable date” due to a weather emergency, while those who wanted to keep things as is cited RSAs 669:1 or 39:1, which say elections must be held annually on the second Tuesday in March. 

“It makes sense for the moderator to be able to make a change in those rare circumstances,” said State Rep. (D) Douglas Ley. “I don’t think we should be so beholden to a specific date.”

Despite recommendations from Governor Chris Sununu and the secretary of state’s office to not change voting day, 15 of the Ledger-Transcript’s 16 towns decided to change their elections to another day, with new dates falling between today (Thursday) and next Tuesday. Francestown was the only area town to hold its election on Tuesday, with Greenfield backing out after originally planning to hold its election on Tuesday. 

Ley, who lives in Jaffrey, felt it was sensible for towns to postpone their elections due to weather, as poor weather conditions could lead to a lesser voter turnout.

State Rep. John Hunt (R) agreed with Ley’s opinion on RSA 40:4, saying that he wouldn’t be surprised if the legislature clears up the issue at some point in the future. 

“I think the moderator should be able to make that determination,” said Hunt. “He’s on the ballot every year. If voters aren’t happy with his decisions, they can vote in someone new.”

But not all legislators agree that RSA 40:4 give moderators such authority. 

State Rep. (D) Kermit Williams said he was in Concord on Monday when he began to hear discussion about towns postponing their voting days due to the weather.

After a conversation with the secretary of state’s office, William said he took the stance that RSA 40:4 gives moderators to move a Town Meeting day, but not necessarily election day. 

“When I got back to Wilton, [moderator Bill Keefe] had already decided to move the election,” said Williams, who is also a Selectman in Wilton. “I might have argued to keep the election on Tuesday, but it’s ultimately his call.”

While there is more freedom for a town to pick when its Town Meeting is held, Williams said the RSAs dictating when town elections should be held are pretty cut and dry. RSA 669:1 specifically states that an election shall be held on the second Tuesday in March unless towns have adopted an alternative date under the rules of RSA 40:14 or the towns that have adopted the provisions of RSA 31:94-a, which allows towns to move election day to the second Tuesday in May after a majority vote at a previous Town Meeting. 

With the confusion that swirled Monday, Williams agreed that something needs to be done about the current laws. 

“Based on what happened, things are not clear,” said William. “It’s interesting to me, because I’ve hear something like this has never happened before.”

Ley also said he would be in support of a plan to introduce some emergency legislation that would ensure that results from the postponed elections are enforceable.

The legislation is expected to be introduced by democratic leaders in the House and Senate later this week, according to the Associated Press. 

On Monday, Governor Chris Sununu urged towns to keep their elections on Tuesday, as the towns who postponed their elections could open the door to lawsuits alleging voter suppression. 

“I don’t think we’re in a position to mandate that towns stay open or reverse their direction if they so choose not to, but we do strongly recommend that they do stay open,” said Sununu, following a phone call with local officials on Monday afternoon. “If towns do choose, and make that choice on their own, at their risk, frankly, to make a decision to postpone their voting.”

Calls were placed to the attorney general’s office and the secretary of state’s office but they were not returned by press time. 

Nicholas Handy can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235 or nhandy@ledgertranscript.com. He is also on Twitter @nhandyMLT.