Legislature tries to clear up mess from storm

MILFORD – The New Hampshire Senate has approved a law to ratify the results of town elections that were postponed because of the March 14 snowstorm. The law is expected to go quickly through the House.

About 73 towns rescheduled their elections when an unprecedented Election Day storm brought blizzardlike conditions and more than a foot of snow to much of the state. Amherst was the only town in this area to open its polls on the traditional Election Day, the second Tuesday in March.

The law, an amendment to another bill, would allow towns that moved their elections to ratify the results after a public hearing and vote of the governing body.

Though state law requires towns to hold annual elections on the second Tuesday in March, many town moderators relied on another law allowing them to move the “voting day of a meeting” in the event of a weather emergency.

But in a conference call on March 13, Gov. Chris Sununu urged them to go ahead with elections as planned or else leave themselves vulnerable to lawsuits alleging voter suppression.

During a Senate hearing two weeks ago, town officials said they didn’t want to restrict voting to only those who could brave the storm, while others argued that postponing elections disenfranchised those who didn’t hear about the change or weren’t able to be in town on the makeup day.

The new law would legalize the election of everyone who was elected to a town or school office.

All other articles on the warrant would be left to the “governing body,” which would be the board of selectmen or school board. Bonded warrant articles passed in towns and school districts, including a $3 million school facilities article in Milford, cannot raise any money until the legal issue is settled.

The amendment says either option was likely to result in the disenfranchisement of voters.

Milford Moderator Peter Basiliere sees a contradiction in the law.

“If approved, the Legislature is saying that it is not OK to disenfranchise the voters when it comes to budgets, purchases, et cetera, but it is OK to disenfranchise the voters when it comes to electing town and school district officials,” he said.

Sen. Jeff Woodburn, a Democrat who sponsored the original legislation, reportedly said the amendment wasn’t perfect, but he’s pleased that the Senate recognized the need to act quickly. He urged the House to agree to what he called a common sense compromise.

An earlier bill to allow towns and school districts to ratify the result of their snowstorm-delayed March elections died in committee.

What the Legislature hasn’t yet dealt with is the question of who has the ultimate authority over the scheduling of town elections – the moderators or the state.

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