Storm wreaks havoc on elections

Despite a warning from the governor that postponing town elections would be risky, moderators in Milford and three other area towns rescheduled their elections because of the severe snowstorm expected Tuesday, March 14.

Amherst is the only one of the five area towns that planned to hold elections on Tuesday, traditional town voting day.

Near-blizzard conditions, with some areas having 4 inches of snow an hour, prompted what some are calling an unprecedented decision on the part of town officials.

Amherst Town Administrator Jim O’Mara said Town Moderator Steve Coughlan made the decision to have the polls open based on Gov. Chris Sununu’s recommendation.

Sununu, while asking drivers to stay off the roads as much as possible, warned moderators and other town officials in a conference call Monday afternoon that rescheduling their elections could open them to charges of voter suppression.

“I firmly believe every town should be open for elections tomorrow,” Sununu said during the conference call.

Calling it a “very confusing situation, to say the least,” Sununu said he was aware that many municipalities had already made a decision not to open their polls on Tuesday.

In Milford, Moderator Peter Basiliere said he rescheduled the election out of concern for the safety of voters, poll workers, officials and custodial staff.

To make sure voters learn of the change, the town posted notices everywhere possible and offered extended hours to get absentee ballots.

Tuesday morning, Basiliere and Town Clerk Joan Dargie were to be at the polling place at Milford Middle School to meet anyone who didn’t get the word and to encourage them to vote Saturday or to pick up absentee ballots.

Sununu said he didn’t feel he could force the towns to open their polling places, citing ambiguous state laws. If the state mandated the polls stay open, it would make “the confusion even worse,” he said.

The governor called a recommendation from the New Hampshire Municipal Association for towns to reschedule elections “inadvisable.”

Sununu also advised town and school officials to get together and confer, especially in towns with cooperative school districts.

Rescheduling means Mont Vernon will vote two days later than Amherst, and since both towns are voting on questions and officials in the cooperative school districts, results of Amherst’s election could, at least theoretically, affect voting in Mont Vernon.

In towns that do postpone elections, Sununu said, some officials should be at their polling places all day Tuesday to talk to people who were not aware of the change.

Sununu also urged the state Legislature to clear up the confusion about who has the ultimate say on local elections.

The National Weather Service on Monday was calling for 12-18 inches of snow throughout New Hampshire on Tuesday, with snow starting around 7 a.m. and becoming very heavy by late morning, with near-blizzard conditions at least on the Seacoast.

This storm on Election Day raises questions about what would happen if there was some kind of natural disaster on the day of a presential primary or presidential election, Basiliere said.

“The Legislature has to take a hard look,” he said.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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