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You Asked, We Answered: How Do N.H. Town Meetings Work During COVID-19?

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Dan Tuohy, NHPR
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Towns and school districts across the state are preparing for this year’s Town Meeting Day, March 9. Some NHPR listeners have reached out to ask how towns will balance the need to gather for local elections with precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

We looked into those issues, and here’s what we learned.

Mask guidelines for town meetings

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services says municipalities can adopt mask requirements that are stricter than the state’s guidance, and if this is the case, that municipality’s guidance should be followed. If a municipality does not adopt stricter rules, residents must adhere to the state’s mask mandate as a baseline for COVID-19 precautions.

The state’s current mask mandate requires everyone over age five to wear a mask in all indoor and outdoor public spaces when they cannot stay six feet apart from others — including town meetings. However, the state recognizes town moderators’ authority to enforce or not enforce mask requirements at meeting or polling places.

For people who are unable or unwilling to wear a mask and fall under one of the exemptions in the state’s Emergency Order 74, town moderators must allow them to observe and participate in town meetings. Town moderators may provide an alternate room or voting area for people without masks — just as in the 2020 state elections.

How towns are holding elections in 2021

On January 22, Gov. Chris Sununu issued Emergency Order 83, which established rules about alternative polling place requirements and the counting of absentee ballots. Voters may still use concern for COVID-19 as a reason to request an absentee ballot.

For town, district or school meetings and deliberative sessions in 2021, the state has outlined four options:

  1. Meetings, elections and/or deliberative sessions may be held normally, while following health guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
  2. Towns that are unable to hold in-person meetings due to COVID-19 can adopt optional meeting procedures that were established in July 2020. These optional procedures include a combination of virtual meetings and information sessions, and drive-up voting.
  3. Meetings and elections can be postponed under the authority granted in Emergency Order #83 and rescheduled for the first Tuesday in April, May, June or July.
  4. The moderator also has the power to postpone a meeting or election if the location is deemed unsafe (due to COVID-19 or another emergency).

Where to go for official answers to other questions

The Attorney General’s Office will be operating its Election Day hotline from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m on Tuesday, March 9. Voters or election officials with concerns or questions can call 1-866-868-3703 (1-866-VOTER03) or email electionlaw@doj.nh.gov.

You can also find more information on voting during the COVID-19 state of emergency in New Hampshire here.

Tell us about your experience with coronavirus in New Hampshire — click this link to take our brief survey.

Zoey Knox is NHPR's newsroom engagement producer. She has spent most of her radio years at college radio stations in Madison, WI (WSUM) and Seattle, WA (KXSU).

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