Towns pivot to prepare for delayed voting day
|Published: 03-27-2023 12:51 PM
Towns across the Monadnock region are gearing up for elections again, after the previously scheduled election on March 14 ran up against a major blizzard that dumped massive amounts of snow across the state, knocked out power and closed roads.
This is not the first time in recent memory that local elections have had to combat a snow event. In both 2017 and 2018, towns had to make calls about election delays due to snow – but at the time, there was disagreement among state officials whether elections could be delayed, or who had the authority to do so.
The statute at the time allowed moderators the authority to move the voting day of Town Meeting, but Secretary of State William Gardner argued that statute only applied to the town’s annual meeting, and not elections, and at the time Gov. Chris Sununu urged towns to move forward with elections as planned. Some towns delayed elections anyway, with the stance that March elections, which consist of local votes only, are part of Town Meeting, and moderators have authority over them in a way that differs from state of federal elections.
The matter was contentious enough that the New Hampshire state legislature had to approve a bill to ratify the results of elections that were postponed because of the 2017 storm, after nearly 80 towns were forced to reschedule due to a nor’easter that dropped more than a foot of snow on parts of the state.
Since then, however, the legislature has adjusted the statutes governing elections, more clearly giving power to delay elections in the event of emergencies to town moderators, and laying out the exact procedure for rescheduling them and notifying the public.
Wilton Town Clerk Jane Farrell said even with the new statute laying out the procedure clearly, delaying the election “wasn’t ideal.”
“You have to scramble, and try to get the word out,” Farrell recalled.
In Wilton, the town employed the police’s electronic sign, as well as posting notices on the town’s website, but Farrell said there was still confusion among residents.
“But it was very prudent it was done, this last storm,” Farrell said. “I have no regrets that we did it, because of the safety of the people, the inconvenience that would have been caused to the town crew had they had to dedicate any time to maintaining downtown, and it would have been a disservice to the voters who were not able to get out, with all the downed trees and everything else.”
Farrell said holding elections as planned would have come with its own inconveniences, beyond the potential impact to voters. She said she was planning on a very scaled down crew for voting itself, and was concerned about the ability of ballot counters to attend the end-of-day count.
New Ipswich and Greenville were the first Monadnock towns to officially announce that they would be delaying their election.
By statute, delays can only be announced the day before the election, and Greenville Moderator Marshall Buttrick and New Ipswich Moderator Bob Romeril were on a video chat at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, March 13, with other invested parties, including school administration and town department heads to make the decision.
The two towns coordinated, as they share a school district, and the school election of officers, as well as the entirety of the district’s warrant is set to be voted on during the March elections.
While other towns waited until later in the morning or even into the afternoon to make the call, Buttrick said he and Romeril decided to make the call early.
“You generally have a good sense of what it’s going to be like, and it seemed to make sense to make the decision as soon as possible,” Buttrick said.
Francestown Moderator Paul Lawrence, who was moderator during the 2017 storm, said that Francestown went ahead with holding elections that year, despite other towns deciding to postpone elections.
While there were conflicting reports about moderator’s authority to delay elections, Lawrence said the decision in 2017 was mainly based on conditions at the time. He said this storm was worse, with more snow, trees down, and widespread Wi-Fi and power outages. He said he consulted with town departments, including the chief of police, fire chief, and road agent, before making the decision to delay Francestown’s election this year, and was also influenced by decisions in other towns within the ConVal School District to delay.
“Everyone said it was the right call,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence said whether the delay will have an impact on voter turnout remain to be seen.
Farrell said the conditions may have had an impact on Wilton’s Town Meeting voting, which is traditionally held on the Thursday after elections. While storm cleanup was largely complete by that time in Wilton, Farrell said the turnout based on the first vote of the night, which was a ballot vote, was only 71, which she said was a “record low.”
Ashley Saari can be reached at 603-924-7172 ext. 244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.