Local officials from all corners of the state lined up Thursday for a hearing on a bill about who should have the power to delay town elections, for snowstorms or otherwise.
The Senate endorsed the bill earlier this month, but it garnered renewed debate in the House in light of the town meeting day winter storm that surfaced in the weeks since.
One of those in the crowd was Washington town moderator Barbara Gaskell, who recently landed in trouble for defying the state's orders not to delay her town's election because of the snow.
“You've heard me bandied about a bit here today. Apparently I had the audacity to disobey the Secretary of State and postpone our elections this year,” Gaskell told members of the House Election Law committee. “For the record, I did not consider the Secretary of State when I made my decision. I considered the people that elected me — and their safety.”
Despite her dispute with the state over the scheduling of this year’s elections, Gaskell said she supported a proposal that would, ultimately, give the state the final say on such matters.
The bill spells out a process by which towns could ask the Secretary of State for permission to delay a town election, in cases of inclement weather or other emergencies, but they wouldn’t be able to make that decision on their own. (If the Secretary of State fails to respond to such requests within four hours, the bill does say towns could go ahead with their postponement.)
While she originally opposed this fix, Gaskell said she had a change of heart after talking with her state representative and hearing the rationale behind the legislation.
"Something has to be done,” Gaskell said. “I don't want to be in this position again next year. I want someone, anyone, to be able to decide that it is unsafe for my mother to go out in a blizzard to vote for selectman."
Most other local officials who came to weigh in on the bill opposed it altogether, arguing towns should be the ones with the final say over scheduling. Several representatives plan to introduce a New Hampshire Municipal Association-backed amendment that takes this route instead.
“I think our town moderators are ideally situated to decide when to postpone an election if they deem necessary, whether it be for weather or any other catastrophe,” said Rep. Franklin Sterling, a Republican from Jaffrey. “They know their towns; they know their voters.”
Some, however, warned against an approach that afforded too much deference to local moderators — saying that could open the door for election tampering.
In this camp was former Sen. Bob Clegg, who told the House Election Law committee he was disenfranchised when his hometown, Hudson, delayed its 2017 election because of a forecasted snowfall. He said voters weren’t afforded an equal opportunity to participate in the rescheduled election or fill out an absentee ballot.
“That’s why I believe no moderator should be given the total decision, the total power, to decide how that election’s going to go that day,” Clegg said.
There are differing views on what the law currently allows. Some town officials say it already clearly gives moderators the power to move voting day in case of severe weather. But the Secretary of State's office — backed up by the attorney general — maintain that no such authority exists.
Secretary of State Bill Gardner affirmed that position again at Thursday’s hearing, walking legislators through the history of how New Hampshire’s town meeting laws came to be and why he believed they don’t anyone to delay elections due to weather.
But he acknowledged that the current law, if left unchanged, places local officials in a tough spot.
“I have empathy for the moderators, because we have good moderators in this state,” Gardner said. “And they do a good job… And they have to make a decision, ‘I know there are people that probably aren’t going to be able to make this, and I really think the right thing to do is to have it on another day.’ But the law is the law.”