CONCORD, N.H. — Another big storm is putting local officials between a snowbank and a hard place for Tuesday’s annual town elections.
Though state law requires towns to hold annual elections on the second Tuesday in March, nearly 80 communities rescheduled their elections last year when a storm dumped more than 1 foot (0.3 meters) of snow across much of the state. That sparked widespread confusion about who has the authority to reschedule elections, but before lawmakers could agree on a solution Town Meeting Day and another storm arrived. The National Weather Service is warning of up to 14 inches (35 centimeters) of snow between midnight Monday and 8 a.m. Wednesday.
“Once again, Mother Nature has decided to have poor timing,” Perry Plummer, director Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told town moderators and other officials on a conference call Monday.
Many towns that postponed elections last year relied on another law allowing town moderators to move the “voting day of a meeting” in the event of a weather emergency. But Secretary of State William Gardner and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said that law refers only to deliberative sessions and business meetings at which voters decide on budgets and other issues, not the voting by official ballot required under a 1976 amendment to the state Constitution.
“There is nothing in the law that allows anyone to postpone the election because the law is specific, it’s gotta be that day,” Gardner said in an interview. “I can’t do it for state elections. No one can do it.”
Judy Silva, executive director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said a few towns were considering postponing their elections but most planned to heed the message from the state. Some were scrambling to find enough poll workers, however.
“Everybody’s in a bit of a stew,” she said. “They are all feeling like they have to go ahead, and they are worried.”
On the conference call, one moderator said he was puzzled that the governor couldn’t help by declaring a state of emergency and was told that even that wouldn’t allow elections to be moved.
Another moderator in a town that holds its election as part of its Town Meeting asked if it would be acceptable for residents at the meeting to vote as a group to postpone. Richard Haskins said that’s what happened in his town, Hancock, last year, but Assistant Attorney General Matthew Broadhead told him that was not a valid option.
“That’s disappointing to hear that you’re not recognizing the people at the time, in their own town, deciding what they want to do in their own Town Meeting,” Haskins said.
The forecast also prompted many voters to request absentee ballots and deal with confusion over the criteria for getting them. Bad weather is not a valid reason under the law, but Broadhead said physical disability or work obligations are. The latter could encompass someone caring for a child whose school is cancelled due to the storm.
Charles Putnam, town moderator in Rollinsford, blasted state officials for failing to reach out to local officials and accused them of making a “complete hash” out of the absentee-ballot process.
“This particular clarification comes way too late in the day — absentee ballots must be received before 5 p.m. the day before the election,” he said. “This dithering has created an enormous mess for really years to come in terms of the administration of absentee ballots.”