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Attorney General’s office rules on Rindge absentee ballot complaints

  • Town voting, March 13, 2018 (Nicholas Handy / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Nicholas Handy



Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Monday, June 11, 2018 1:9PM

The state Attorney General’s Office has concluded that Rindge’s town clerk violated two state laws when preparing absentee ballots before the March 13 election but the office will not levy any punishments against her.

The Attorney General’s Office has also ruled that various statements made by Rindge officials about the availability of absentee ballots prior to the election did not violate any laws. 

Both investigations were the result of more than a half-dozen complaints from Rindge residents filed with the Attorney General’s Office in March. 

Cease and desist

Town Clerk Nancy Martin failed to endorse copies of absentee ballots made on March 12, according to Assistant Attorney Matthew Broadhead, in a cease and desist order dated June 8.

An investigation revealed that Martin had run out of absentee ballots “due to an unexpectedly high volume of requests,” the first time she had encountered such an issue, according to the letter. 

Martin assigned three individuals to assist her in copying blank absentee ballots so she could continue her duties as town clerk. 

The problem with the process, according to Broadhead’s order, is that Martin did not authenticate the copied ballots by signing them.

Martin admitted during the investigation that she failed to endorse each absentee ballot before issuing them to about 88 voters. Martin kept a record of how many completed ballots had been returned, but failed to record how many copies were made, according to Broadhead’s order. 

The Attorney General’s office also ruled against another allegation in one of the complaints, which said the ballots that were not properly endorsed should have been rejected at the polls.

The state statute’s purpose is to permit rejection of fraudulently copied ballots, according to the order. 

“If Ms. Martin had followed the outlined procedure, any ballot that did not contain the clerk’s original endorsement could have been fraudulently created and, therefore, subject to rejection,” wrote Broadhead. “The bar, however, does not apply in this instance  where every copied absentee ballot issued by the clerk contained t he same technical defect.”

The letter orders Martin to cease and desist any activities in violation of RSAs 659:24 and 658:35, but did not specify any punishment. Criminal prosecution, civil penalties, or seeking removal from office are all potential avenues listed should a pattern persist. 

Martin could not be reached for comment by the Ledger-Transcript’s Monday print deadline. 

The order also addresses another complaint that alleged Selectwoman Roberta Oeser was “improperly copying blank absentee ballots.”

Broadhead wrote that Oeser did not violate any laws, as the only prohibitions under state statute deal with a candidate handling marked ballots. 

“For the same reasons that underpin this law, a selectman appearing on the ballot should avoid handling and copying unmarked ballots, even if under the direction of the town clerk, in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” wrote Broadhead. 

Absentee ballotstatements

Statements made by Town Moderator Charlie Eicher, Town Clerk Nancy Martin, Police Chief Daniel Anair, and Selectwoman Roberta Oeser about the availability of absentee ballots were addressed in a separate letter from Broadhead.

Each town official had sent out a message via social media or text message, alerting voters that they could seek an absentee ballot on the day before election day. Each message referenced the impending snowstorm, which forecasted as much as 18-inches of snow statewide. 

“Although these statements are vague and imprudent because they could have caused confusion among voters, they do not constitute criminal misconduct,” wrote Broadhead. “… None of the statements issued by the town officials above constitute an overt act to conspire with or solicit someone to vote unlawfully.”

Broadhead wrote that after arriving at the town office, voters were directed to fill out the state-issued absentee ballot request form. Because of this, the burden to decide whether one is qualified for an absentee ballot falls on the individual voter.

Per state law, there are only four reasons a voter can seek an absentee ballot: being absent from town on election day, religious commitments, an illness or disability, or an employment obligation – which per state law includes things like taking care of children or elderly people. 

Furthermore, Broadhead concluded that there was no credible evidence to indicate that anyone had illegally cast a vote or absentee ballot. 

Electioneering

Broadhead said in an email Monday morning that there is still one pending issue to be resolved relative to election day in the Jaffrey-Rindge area: whether Jaffrey town employees were involved in a campaign to entice voters to vote against two controversial school district warrant articles. 

At least three complaints were filed with the Attorney General’s office pertaining to this matter, with letters alleging that town employees used government property and resources to influence Jaffrey voters.

Two school district warrant articles were voted down in March: one seeking to change the district’s apportionment formula – which would have reduced Rindge’s taxes and increased Jaffrey’s – and a petition article that would have reduced the vote required to change the district’s articles agreement from two-thirds to three-fifths. 

The apportionment article only received 47.8-percent approval between the two towns – needing two-thirds to pass – but was overwhelmingly voted down by Jaffrey voters. 

The petition article also needed a two-thirds vote to pass, but only received 29-percent of the vote. 

Broadhead said there is no timeframe as to when this issue would be resolved. 

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