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Lawmakers push legislation to allow postponements of town meeting 

  • Hancock held its annual Town Meeting on Saturday, March 14, 2020. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monitor staff
Published: 1/5/2021 4:08:53 PM

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is seeking to fast-track a bill allowing towns to postpone their town meetings as far back as July, as concerns over the state of COVID-19 in March persist.

Sen. James Gray, a Rochester Republican and the incoming chairman of the Election Law and Municipal Affairs committee, is sponsoring the bill and pushing for it to be approved on Wednesday, using a special expedited process on the Legislature’s first meeting of 2021.

The bill, Senate Bill 2, would allow towns or cities to push back town elections and annual meetings to the second Tuesday of April, May, June or even July. Those elections are typically held in March. The deliberative sessions ahead of those meetings could also be postponed.

Town representatives would be required to announce the amended dates 14 days before the rescheduled date.

Joining Gray in co-sponsoring the bill are top leaders of the House and Senate Republican leadership, including Senate President Chuck Morse of Salem, Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, and acting-House Speaker Sherman Packard of Londonderry.

The bill would also bring back several temporary changes to absentee voting implemented for the elections last year, and allow them to be applied to town meeting days.

It would allow moderators of elections to partially process absentee ballots in the days ahead of Election Day – in this case town meeting day.

The idea came out of direct feedback from towns, Gray said.

“After the election, the secretary of state held a series of television meetings with the town clerks, with the moderators, listening to their thoughts on the election,” Gray said in an interview Monday. “And there was a significant number of them that wanted the ability to preprocess absentee ballots that was offered in House Bill 1266 last year to be extended to this election.”

Normally, the outer and inner envelopes of an absentee ballot cannot be touched until the day of the election, but New Hampshire lawmakers passed a measure last year allowing them to be partly opened ahead of time to allow election officials to look for irregularities on the voter affi davits and approve signatures.

That partial processing could take place on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday or Monday ahead of the election itself – provided that towns gave proper notice to voters.

The ability to partially process the ballots helped town officials in November prepare for what was a historic onslaught of absentee ballots that needed to be processed and counted in one day.

The measure was supposed to be temporary for last year’s state primaries and general election, but Senate Bill 2 would bring it back until Aug. 1, when it would expire again.

Sen. Tom Sherman, a Rye Democrat and a co-sponsor of the legislation, said allowing towns to postpone town meeting is a key public health measure.

“We’re probably not going to be out COVID until at last late spring, early summer, and we won’t really be out of it. We’ll be able to more easily socially distance,” Sherman said. “What this allows is it really allows fully representation of everybody that wants to be there and participation without compromising the public health. And that’s why it’s critical.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)


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