Town meeting snow

On the day of town elections and many town meetings, March 14, 2017, a nor’easter dumped several inches of snow on the region, leading to confusion about cancellations. The “vote here” sign, which was partially covered by blowing snow, was in front of the Hinsdale polling place at the community center.

CONCORD — After two years of heavy snow causing kerfuffles over whether moderators have the authority to postpone annual town elections, state lawmakers hope to settle the issue.

A bill being proposed for the 2019 legislative session would give town moderators the authority to postpone local elections and official-ballot town meetings — in which all warrant articles appear on the ballot — if inclement weather could put the public at risk.

The plan is in its early stages as legislative service request document LSR 2019-0511. If it is to become law, it will have to go through the elections committee before heading to the full Legislature for a vote and, finally, Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk for a signature.

State Sen. Jay V. Kahn, D-Keene, told The Sentinel Friday that he and his colleagues sponsoring the bill have been in touch with town officials and are working out the details.

“Town officials have consistently stated that they want it clarified that they have the authority for making a determination on the need for postponement,” Kahn said. “This is to be exercised only during the most severe weather conditions, when the public’s safety is at risk. This addresses their concerns without creating an approval process that might delay notification.”

Kahn said the window for postponing a meeting would be between 48 hours and two hours before polls open for town elections.

A similar bill was proposed in the 2018 legislative session, Kahn said, but ultimately failed.

The town meeting saga played a central role in the high drama that unfolded when longtime N.H. Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a Democrat in charge of the state’s elections, barely survived his first challenge for the post since the 1980s.

Facing Colin Van Ostern — a former Democratic executive councilor and gubernatorial candidate — Gardner eked out a victory by just four votes among state legislators on Dec. 5.

While Gardner’s support among his fellow Democrats had eroded for several other reasons — including supporting President Donald Trump’s now-defunct voter fraud commission and new laws that tightened the state’s voter registration process — many rank-and-file members and newcomers told The Sentinel in November that the two-year town meeting and elections dispute was what they heard the most complaints about from constituents.

The first weather-related dustup came in March 2017, when a nor’easter forced towns and municipalities to decide whether to postpone their elections and town meetings.

State law is clear that moderators can postpone traditional town meetings, in which residents gather in one place at one time to vote on warrant articles. But the law isn’t clear about whether moderators can postpone elections for town officials and official-ballot town meetings.

“We don’t have snow days in the law for our elections,” Gardner told the Union Leader in March 2017.

Thanks to another snowstorm this year, moderators and other town officials again encountered the mixed signals in state statutes.

One statute gives moderators the power to reschedule deliberative sessions and the “voting day of the meeting” in cases when weather might make roads hazardous. Another law requires all towns to hold elections for town officials on the second Tuesday of March.

In his victory speech from the Statehouse floor earlier this month, Gardner said he is open to new ideas, but did not go into detail about town meetings.

Gardner could not be reached for comment Friday, but in an October interview with The Sentinel, he emphasized that the weather-related drama, along with the concern over new voting legislation, came down to people making excuses instead of making a concerted effort to vote.

“People here have the will and the effort to vote,” Gardner said. “No matter how easy you make it, you still have to have the will to do it. It’s a balancing act.”

For Kahn, all the tension over whether to cancel town elections when there is inclement weather can be de-escalated with the new bill.

“It would empower town moderators, following consultation with emergency responders, to postpone town elections, which includes ballots and deliberative sessions,” Kahn said.

Emergency responders, according to Kahn, would include police, fire and the town’s emergency services director, who would use their judgement to make a recommendation to the town moderator.

The legislative session begins Jan. 2. Town elections are set for March 12, with town meetings happening before, on or after that day depending on the community.

Jake Lahut can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or jlahut@keenesentinel.com . You can follow him on Twitter @JakeLahut .