It took New Hampshire’s Republican governor to rescue New Hampshire’s Republican-led Legislature from putting towns, school districts and their voters between a rock and a hard place. Last week, Gov. Chris Sununu issued an executive order that authorized towns and school districts to postpone their 2021 voting and annual meetings should they have public-health concerns due to COVID-19. The order also implements various procedures for preprocessing absentee ballots in 2021 town elections similar to those adopted for the 2020 elections due to the pandemic.
The governor’s action is sensible and welcome but shouldn’t have been necessary. The Senate had already adopted on Jan. 6 — unanimously — a bill to enact these provisions. House leaders, however, decided to put the legislation, Senate Bill 2, on hold, apparently to ensure a public hearing on the matter before moving the bill forward. With matters apparently more pressing than voter safety taking precedence for the House’s attention, its enactment is not expected until sometime in February.
That would be too late for local officials, who are launching into the upcoming season of town, village and school district elections, deliberative sessions and meetings. In this region alone, there were deliberative sessions scheduled this weekend for Charlestown and Rindge and the Monadnock and Winchester school districts, though the latter has already chosen to postpone its session. Seven more are scheduled for next week. With the House procrastinating despite having control over its own calendar, and with local officials lacking flexibility they might need in the face of public health concerns, Sununu stepped in and — using his state-of-emergency authority — issued his executive order to bridge the gap until SB 2 is enacted.
Now, towns and districts have the certainty of knowing that, out of public-health concerns, they may postpone official ballot voting to the second Tuesday of any month through July and to delay the deliberative or business session to one or more dates in 2021. The order also clarifies that elected officials will continue to serve their otherwise expiring terms until postponed elections and meetings are completed (though, if enacted, SB 2 will allow newly elected officials to assume office before a postponed business meeting has concluded, which is preferable). And Sununu’s order authorizes continued spending guided by the preceding year’s expenditures until budgets can be adopted by Sept. 1.
All to the good, but if the House had been living up to its responsibilities, providing this needed flexibility wouldn’t have required an executive order. Given the concern expressed by legislators — and in increasing numbers among House Republicans — that the governor’s emergency powers intrude too broadly on the Legislature’s constitutional role, it’s odd the House’s delay served only to force the governor to step into the vacuum.
The other oddity about this episode is that there will be general consensus among the governor, the Senate and, eventually, the House on the effectiveness of the absentee ballot process implemented in last year’s election. While neither SB 2 nor the governor’s executive order addresses the expansion of absentee voting that was implemented last election season — virtually anyone could vote absentee if they stated having only a “concern for the novel coronavirus” — both the bill and the executive order evidence continuing confidence in the ability of New Hampshire’s election officials to handle widespread absentee voting.
Despite this, despite the record turnout that the expanded availability of absentee voting helped drive last year, and despite the absence of fraud or meaningful problems in processing absentee ballots last fall, there as yet seems no stomach in Concord for keeping absentee voting opened up after the pandemic recedes. There is a bill pending to provide for that — Senate Bill 47 — introduced by Democratic Leader Donna Soucy of Manchester, but its prospects seem uncertain at best. At its committee hearing last week, Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan testified against the bill. The objections he cited — a state constitutional provision, which arguably was as threatening to last year’s temporary opening up of absentee voting, and some speculative concerns about opportunities that widespread absentee voting might create for manipulation by political campaigns — strike us as ones that can be addressed through carefully drafted legislation.
The more important issue is whether our leaders in Concord are willing to make voting more accessible to all. The smooth conduct of last year’s election and the record-breaking participation of the state’s residents in the democratic process should convince them widespread absentee voting is an idea whose time has come for New Hampshire.