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Nor'easter Brings Gusts of Confusion About Town Meeting Day

voting booth

Tuesday’s nor’easter is causing a bit of commotion before it even arrives, sowing confusion about whether towns have the legal authority to reschedule their votes for better weather.

When weather reports began predicting a late winter nor’easter for this week, many towns around New Hampshire did something that sounds reasonable enough – they rescheduled the date of their town meetings.

  But no sooner had the email alerts to residents gone out then the Secretary of State’s office said that was illegal.

They pointed to a state statute that says towns must hold town meeting day on the second Tuesday in March – snow or no snow. Here’s Secretary of State Bill Gardner.

“I understand what it’s like. I’m not as comfortable driving when there is a snow storm then when there isn’t. But, you do the best that you can.”

Some town officials argued that state statute gives them authority to reschedule.

Still, worried they might be breaking the law, many towns sent out a second alert to residents, canceling the postponement.

Arthur Capello is Farmington Town Administrator. He spent much of Monday waiting for guidance on this question from the state.

“It’s very frustrating cause we need to be able to get the word out to our residents on what we’re doing. And the longer this takes, the less chance we’re going to have to get the word out to our residents.”

By early afternoon, Governor Chris Sununu met with state officials including Secretary Gardner to discuss the problem. They emerged with a compromise.

“Given that there are differing opinions, the best we can do is to strongly recommend that all towns stay open for voting tomorrow. We think that’s a very important part of the process. But given those differing opinions, I don’t think we’re in a position to mandate that towns stay open.”

But even with this clarification from the governor, some worry that damage to voter turnout has already been done.

Senate Democrats are proposing emergency legislation to clarify the law for next year.

But Cordell Johnston, a lawyer with the New Hampshire Municipal Association, says it’s not a change in state statute that is needed – towns have the power to reschedule.

“There’s been talk about the legislature needing to clarify the situation, but once again, the law couldn’t be much clearer. There doesn’t need to be legislative action.”

Be sure to check in with your local town officials to see when your town meeting day is this year.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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