Posted: Thursday, April 6, 2017 12:00 pm
The Blizzard of 2017: Who will ever forget it, that late-season Nor’easter that dumped over a foot of snow in some places, caused road accidents and power outages, and had winds blowing over 50 mph — on none other than town Election Day? The blizzard wreaked havoc, and now so is our state government: officials are attempting to empower towns to nullify the majority vote from town meetings across the state.
State officials, siting safety concerns, encouraged people to stay home. They urged businesses to close. And local officials began notifying state officials they were postponing town elections to keep people off the roads.
Those decisions to postpone town elections were not done lightly. They were based on the state’s directive that motorists avoid driving, reports from local road crews that they could not keep up with the rate of snowfall, input from concerned citizens, and the N.H. Municipal Association. The association informed town officials they had authority to postpone elections due to the weather emergency, citing RSA 40:4 II as authorization for the postponement. However, confusion and a lack of clarity came from state election officials over just how to interpret election law.
Maybe most of us didn’t give the postponing of town meeting much thought. Bad weather, unsafe roads: surely local election officials should be able to make governing decisions about local matters and decide in favor of public safety. And so, the vote was postponed in towns across New Hampshire. Not everywhere, but in nearly 80 communities.
Voters showed up on the rescheduled day. Some towns showed a higher voter turnout than last year — they came, voted, and went on their way. Newly elected officials were sworn in and went about the business of serving the public.
It was logical and sensible for the public to accept postponement of town elections due to impassable roads and safety concerns. However, our election, our votes and the legitimacy of our public officials has been cast into doubt by state officials who appear offended that local officials — and not the central government apparatus — made the call to postpone.
Of course, postponing elections created some legal uncertainties around bond issues and such, but that was easy enough to remedy with a bill proposed by Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn. Senate Bill 248 was simple, straightforward and sensible — like most Granite Staters. The bill Sen. Woodburn proposed would have “ratified actions, votes, and proceedings of town and school district meetings and elections postponed due to the weather emergency on March 14, 2017.” Commonsense legislation with the intent to protect local decision-making authority.
State election officials didn’t like the proposed legislation because it condoned the actions taken by local election officials against the opinion of state political operatives. Sen. Woodburn’s bill was smothered by the Senate Election Law Committee when members amended it to establish a committee to study the rescheduling of elections.
Instead of protecting the actions of local officials and accepting the majority vote of townspeople, House Speaker Shawn Jasper has amended SB 108, assaulting direct democracy in New Hampshire communities. SB 108 forces voters to hold special elections, at no small cost to our communities. The special elections require voters in communities where election day was postponed, to now “ratify” the votes taken on the rescheduled election dates.
That “ratification” won’t take place until May. Meanwhile, decisions made by voters at the polls are on hold, their votes vetoed legislatively, their elected officials held in suspended animation. Worst of all, Speaker Jasper’s hand grenade of an amendment says that if voters in May reject the snow-day results, then all votes cast will be null and void, all warrant articles will be deemed to have been defeated, and all the positions voted for will be vacant.
Really? Since when do voters get to vote to support or negate the votes of their neighbors and overturn adopted warrant articles? This is rich, Mister Speaker!
We all know how the votes played out in our communities and the public has accepted them. But now, if you didn’t like how the vote went in your town, you get the opportunity to campaign again for an additional month. You have until May 23 to re-influence the vote. This is the “solution” to a snow day postponement. One is tempted to wonder what alternate candidates, warrant articles and outcomes the speaker and his confidants might prefer win this time around.
State political operatives are requiring towns to hold a “special meeting” on a date dictated by the state, with the question before the voters being determined by the state. This amounts to an unfunded state-mandate while nullifying the vote of the people. New Hampshire, with the motto of “Live Free or Die” is at the threshold of state elected officials unashamedly taking complete control over our towns. It is not enough to have the right to vote when governments are able to decide not only how we vote and determine what we vote for, but even whether we can vote — and if that vote will matter.
Michelle Sanborn of Alexandria is coordinator for the N.H. Community Rights Network.