Snowstorm smacks another NH Town Meeting Day, but this time officials, voters are ready

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-14-2023 8:39 PM

Tuesday’s late winter storm, which saw 13 inches of snow pile up in Newport, N.H., by noon, also brought tall stacks of Town Meeting ballots from voters who were thinking ahead. 

On Monday, Cornish Town Clerk Paula Harthan handed out almost 90 absentee ballots. “Typically I only do like 20, but I had to keep making copies because everyone just kept filing in,” Harthan said. “It was absolutely nuts. Everyone was acting like this was the blizzard of 2023.”

Snowstorms and Town Meeting Day aren’t exactly strangers in New Hampshire. Massive snowfall pelted the state on the big voting day in both 2017 and 2018, making driving treacherous, denting turnout and causing confusion over which officials — state or local — have the power to postpone town voting in emergencies. Those administrative concerns were subsequently hashed out in the state Legislature, which led to contingency options many towns used this year as the Tuesday forecast grew uglier and wetter.

Some New Hampshire towns, including Grantham and Lyme, saw the winter storm warning issued by the National Weather Service and postponed voting.

But in Canaan, a “steady stream” of voters still turned out to the polls at the fire station, Town Clerk Vicky McAlister said.

Dave Shinnlinger teaches woodworking at Mascoma Valley Regional High School. Students attended classes remotely, but he got a snow day (you can’t turn a wooden spindle over the computer), and he used it to vote for the school’s budget.

“I was a little concerned about the turnout,” Shinnlinger said. “I’m a pro-public education voter, and those for some reason are the voters that don’t always show up.”

Patrick McCleary, a custodian at the school for 13 years, followed behind Shinnlinger at the polls with the same budget hopes. If the proposed spending plan doesn’t pass, he’s worried the school will have to cut positions.

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“We’re not exactly flush with help right now,” McCleary said.

While Shinnlinger and McCleary came out to vote on the day of, around 90 Canaan residents had filled out absentee ballots by Monday. Usually it’s about half that, said McAlister, the clerk.

Tuesday’s 11-hour stint at the polls marked her 20th as Canaan’s clerk. It was also her last.

“Now I’ll just relax,” McAlister said.

A bit south in Sullivan County, Plainfield Town Administrator Steve Halleran left his office around noon to bring sandwiches from Meriden Deli Mart to what he suspected was a group of bored poll workers at the elementary school gym.

“We have an unusual year anyway, in that we have no contested races and no zoning changes,” Halleran said. “So we would expect a light turnout for those issues under any weather conditions. But I don’t think anyone could make an argument that today’s weather would help.”

Hillary Noyes, deputy town clerk, confirmed Halleran’s suspicions.

“The school employees are keeping the walkway clean and everything, but I think the roads that our residents live on are rough,” Noyes said from her station at the polls.

Snow would continue to fall well into Tuesday night before tapering off around 9 a.m. Wednesday morning, said Jon Palmer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Gray, Maine.

“The snow could be on the wet side, especially if you live right on the Connecticut River,” Palmer said. But Wednesday morning could bring another picturesque scene.

“It will actually get progressively lighter and fluffier throughout this storm,” he predicted.

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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