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Voting On, Regardless of Storm

  • Pittsfield residents cast secret ballots on the citizen petition to restore funding for two police officers during town meeting at Pittsfield Elementary School on Saturday, March 18, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Salisbury town custodian Jean Bousquet sets up the handicapped voting booth at the town hall on Monday, March 12, 2018 for today’s voting. Town moderator John Herbert says the town meeting will proceed no matter what the weather.

  • Salisbury Town Moderator John Herbert helps town custodian Jean Bousquet set up town hall on Monday, March 12, 2018 for today’s voting. Herbert says the town meeting will proceed no matter what the weather.

  • Salisbury Town Moderator John Herbert helps set up town hall on Monday, March 12, 2018 for today’s voting. Herbert says the town meeting will proceed no matter what the weather.

  • Salisbury Town Moderator John Herbert takes down the clock at town hall to move it ahead one hour as he and town custodian work to set up for today’s town voting on Monday, March 12, 2018.

  • Salisbury Town Moderator John Herbert says the town is forging ahead with meeting today despite the weather. “We are bound by statute for the voting so we’ll go ahead with the meeting. It should only take an hour or so.” Last year the town postponed the meeting unilt the following Saturday but this year because of the anticipated shortness of the warrants, the meeting will go ahead in spite of the conditions.

Published: 3/13/2018 12:06:23 AM
Modified: 3/13/2018 12:24:37 AM

Concord — It’s a storm-tossed deja vu all over again for today’s town voting, with one big difference.

“It’s going to be a repeat of last year. Who would have thought?” said Peter Imse, who has been town moderator in Bow, N.H., for two decades.

“In my 20 years, we’ve never had a storm threaten our meetings — so to have two in a row is bizarre,” he said.

The difference is that last year many town moderators took a look a week ahead, saw forecasts of a big nor’easter coming on the second Tuesday in March, and 73 of them decided to postpone ballot voting.

This year, Secretary of State Bill Gardner got there first.

In a memo issued last week to all moderators and clerks, providing guidance on a variety of issues, he was clear: “New Hampshire law does not contain a provision that authorizes any public official to postpone an election.”

The Attorney General’s Office followed up on Monday with a memo making the same point.

As of Monday afternoon, no moderators had announced plans to delay Tuesday voting, even as up to 18 inches of snow was supposed to begin falling on the state.

In the Upper Valley, Grantham officials said late Monday afternoon they will hold the deliberative session today as planned beginning at 5 p.m., but will monitor the storm.

“If the weather becomes dramatically worse than expected during the day (Tuesday), election officials may reconsider. Please watch your emails for any changes,” said Grantham Town Administrator Melissa White in an email.

Lyme also will go on with its scheduled 9 a.m. deliberative session, according to an email from Moderator Kevin Peterson.

In Salisbury, N.H., Town Moderator John Herbert was forging ahead on Monday, despite weather predictions.

It was a more nuanced decision for Herbert because Salisbury is also holding the “business” portion of town meeting on Tuesday, not merely the ballot voting for town offices.

State law has long allowed moderators to postpone that portion of town meeting due to weather.

Last year, Salisbury held the election but postponed the town meeting. Herbert said he will hold the whole meeting this year partly because the weather probably won’t be quite as bad as 2017, but mostly because the meeting has a lot less on the agenda.

“We’ll go ahead with the meeting portion. It should only take an hour or so,” Herbert said, as he was helping custodian Jean Bousquet set up the tables and chairs at the town hall.

Many town clerks’ phones rang off the hook on Monday with questions about voting. Clerks sent out notices by email, Twitter or text — whatever was available.

Many looked like the email from Pembroke town offices, which said “ELECTIONS WILL BE HELD AS SCHEDULED” in all caps and bolded, to emphasize the point.

Another topic that tied up clerks on Monday was people wanting to avoid the storm by voting early, via absentee ballot.

Alas, that’s illegal. Under state law, the only excuses for voting by absentee ballot are being out of town, having a disability that prevents access to the polls, and religious exemption.

“Snow doesn’t work,” said Carol Harless, assistant town clerk in Hopkinton, N.H.

The question of whether local moderators or state officials have the authority to delay ballot voting is a contentious one.

The wording in state law is not entirely clear, and a bill that would definitively give authority to state officials has passed the state Senate but not the House.

Judy Silva, executive director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said the group maintains its position from 2017 that the town moderators can delay voting, but she noted that they probably shouldn’t do so unless they want to be sued by the state.

“We’re telling them that we believe. ... They still have the authority, but they need to take into account what the ramifications might be if they buck the attorney general and the secretary of state,” she said.

Silva mentioned a conference call on Monday among the Attorney General’s Office, the Secretary of State and many town moderators.

“There were a lot of moderators on that and they were very concerned about people driving, not having any options, not being able to give out absentee ballots,” she said.

“Another problem moderators have is election workers calling in saying I’m not going to make it, because most of them are elderly, retired and may not be comfortable driving in the snow,” Silva said.

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