State vs Local: Who Has the Power to Postpone Elections?
CONCORD (AP) — The forecast for Tuesday's elections doesn't worry local officials this year, but a bill passed by state Senate does.
Although state law requires towns to elect their local officials on the second Tuesday in March, nearly 80 communities postponed voting last year when a powerful storm dumped more than a foot of snow on much of the state. The process was as chaotic as the weather, and lawmakers have been working ever since to clarify who can make the call — state or local officials.
The Senate on Thursday passed a bill that would give the secretary of state the authority to postpone town elections if the governor has declared a state of emergency or if a town moderator requests a delay. If the secretary of state's office doesn't respond to a request within four hours, town officials could make the decision. Town moderators would retain the authority to reschedule the separate meetings at which voters discuss and vote on budgets and other issues.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, said he supported the bill as a compromise that balances the tradition of local control with state mandates.
"There's this spectrum between notice and permission," he said, arguing that the four-hour window moves closer to notification than permission because it would "put the pressure on the secretary of state's office to not be able to control this."
"I think we've hit the balance," he said, during a Senate session that itself was delayed several hours due to snow.
Critics argue town officials are in the best position to evaluate whether it is safe to hold elections and should have the authority to decide. Bedford Town Clerk Lori Radke said she agrees with the procedures in the bill spelling out that any postponed election will be held two weeks after the original date, but she remains opposed to the bottom line.
"My only concern is that moderators still need to call the secretary of state's office for their blessing, that's the part I don't understand," she said. "It's a local election, there should be local control."
Last year, Bedford's elections were postponed until two days after the March 14 snowstorm, and Radke believes that was the right decision. She said if the bill passes, and residents some day are unhappy with the state's decision to deny a postponement request from the town, she knows what she'll tell them: "Here's the number for the secretary of state's office."
Judy Silva, director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said her organization has not heard from any town that supports the bill.
"Ever since this all suddenly blew up thanks to Mother Nature last year, we have not heard from anyone who supports this approach," she said.
Beyond the power struggle, the municipal association argues the bill would wreak havoc with dozens of other state laws because it defines town "meetings" and town "elections" as two disconnected events. That could lead to lawsuits from people who disagree with election results and want to take advantage of the statutory conflicts, Silva said.
"The language of the bill is totally at odds with existing statutes," she said.
The Senate rejected an amendment offered by Democratic Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, of Portsmouth, who argued for giving towns more authority. The bill now goes to the House.