Among the most indelible legislative failures of the past few years has been the inability to protect voters and elections workers from unsafe weather conditions. Incoming lawmakers have said it was one of the most frequent complaints they heard during their campaigns.
For good reason. You may recall that in 2017, a nor’easter struck the Granite State the day of town and school district voting. Although New Hampshire has been holding its local elections the second Tuesday in March for centuries, somehow state officials haven’t, in all that time, solved the potential conflict. Or perhaps they have, but current officials refuse to accept it.
As local elections officials struggled with whether to postpone the 2017 town/school voting, Secretary of State Bill Gardner announced they couldn’t. In fact, he determined even he couldn’t postpone voting, the date of which is set by law.
Whether Gardner is correct in his initial assertion is debatable. While RSA 669:1 demands the elections be held the second Tuesday in March, RSA 40:4, enacted in 1998, gives moderators the authority to move deliberative sessions and “voting day” in the case of bad weather. Gardner insists “voting day” and “election day” are two separate things, but Peter Burling, who was House Democratic leader and town moderator of Cornish when RSA 40:4 was passed, recalls the intent being specifically to give moderators the authority to change the election date.
OK, reasonable minds might disagree on the meaning of the law. But at least the incident pointed out the need to make the issue clear moving forward. Dangerous town meeting day storms might not happen every year, but this is New England, after all. That’s what made 2018’s town meeting day both baffling and reason for voters to erupt in anger. It’s not that lawmakers didn’t try to fix the situation. But they failed miserably. Heading into the 2018 legislative session, it was clear someone needed to be able to postpone voting in an emergency.
It’s not that they didn’t try. But while House members tried to give local officials the power to postpone voting, the Senate would have granted it to the secretary of state alone. Somehow, leaders in both chambers didn’t make resolving their competing bills a priority, and, wouldn’t you know it, on Tuesday, March 13, 2018, a storm hit New Hampshire once again. Just to make matters worse, when legislators finally did take up the two bills in a conference committee to iron out the differences — in June — they still couldn’t agree. So nothing has been done. And voters took notice.
Gardner faced a real threat to his office for the first time in decades as the new Legislature took office last month. He barely survived, and among the incoming Democrats who voted for his opponent, a key issue was the inability to safeguard voters on election day.
As the new session gets underway today, lawmakers have 68 days in which to get a solution passed that the governor will sign into law. There is a legislative service request — the precursor to a bill — in the works to give local moderators the power to postpone voting.
Sen. Jay Kahn and Rep. William Pearson, both Keene Democrats, and House Deputy Majority Leader Marjorie Porter, D-Hillsboro, are among the sponsors. So is Wayne Moynihan, D-Dummer, who is the new vice chairman of the House Elections Committee, through which the bill must pass (Pearson is also among that panel’s members). The Senate Elections Law and Municipal Affairs Committee is chaired by new Sen. Melanie Levesque, D-Brookline, whose District 12 includes Rindge.
We’re hopeful the new legislative leadership in both the House and Senate will learn from the recent past and fast-track the bill. A third consecutive snowy town meeting day might be unlikely, but the fix is an easy one and there’s no reason to put it off.