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Bill gives state power to postpone local elections

October 31,2017 14:36

CONCORD — The secretary of state will have the authority to postpone and reschedule local elections under extreme weather conditions, according to proposed legislation. The bill is designed to address the confusion that arose last March, when an ...



By DAVE SOLOMON
State House BureauOctober 30. 2017 10:46PM
CONCORD — The secretary of state will have the authority to postpone and reschedule local elections under extreme weather conditions, according to proposed legislation. The bill is designed to address the confusion that arose last March, when an Election Day nor’easter threw elections for municipal officials and local ballot questions into chaos.
A House-Senate committee created to resolve conflicts that surfaced last March unanimously agreed to draft a bill that settles the matter in a way more satisfactory to the secretary of state than to the N.H. Municipal Association.
According to draft language endorsed by the five-member committee on Monday, the secretary of state can postpone local or school district elections if he believes that an emergency exists, if the governor has declared a state of emergency, or if a town moderator requests such a delay based on an “extreme weather emergency or imminent serious threat to public health and safety.”
State Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, had argued throughout the committee deliberations to give local officials the right to reschedule local elections at their own discretion, but in the end endorsed the compromise.
In March, Secretary of State Bill Gardner took the position that there was no provision whatsoever for postponing and rescheduling an election.
“I obviously wanted the local control, but I think as a practical matter the local officials will be listened to,” Woodburn said. “I can’t imagine the secretary of state saying ’No’ if a town has a legitimate reason for wanting to postpone.”
Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, committee chairman, said the spirit of the law is that the secretary of state and local officials will be equal partners in the decision.
“We want to make sure the moderators are put on the same level as the secretary of state as far as making sure they agree that it needs to be done,” she said, “but I do believe the secretary of state has to have some input into this.”
The law would also standardize the process for rescheduling and the time frames allowed.
Municipal Association Executive Director Judy Silva was not happy with the outcome.
“It remains our position that these are local elections and they ought to be determined locally,” she said. “Inserting a state official into that decision-making process violates local control, is unnecessary and unwieldy.”
The proposed legislation would give towns the right to reschedule town meetings or deliberative sessions at their own discretion, but not ballot-booth voting.
“So it’s OK for us to postpone a certain part of town meeting all by ourselves, but not within our ability to postpone the voting portion?” said Silva after the vote. “This treats official ballot communities differently than traditional town meeting communities, because the official ballot communities do all their voting on the ballot.”
The vote came as the state was recovering from widespread power outages in the wake of a tropical storm that hit New England on the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy.
Birdsell joked that the chance of an extreme weather event forcing rescheduling of elections again is remote, “except for last night.”
dsolomon@unionleader.com
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