Plenty of local officials grumbled about the state’s orders not to reschedule town elections because of last week’s snowstorm. But only one — the town of Washington — defied those instructions and decided to delay its votes anyway.
Needless to say, the state isn’t pleased. Two days after town election day, the attorney general’s office told the town that it broke the law and needs to follow a mandatory “corrective action plan” to hold its rescheduled town elections on the state’s terms. (Assistant Attorney General Matt Broadhead said that, to his knowledge, Washington is the only community that didn't follow those instructions.)
Initially, Washington officials planned to postpone their election just a few days, rescheduling it from March 13 to March 17. Now, the attorney general’s office says Washington needs to hold its makeup election on April 3 and will be under extra scrutiny from a state-appointed election monitor at every step of the way leading up to that vote.
According to the state, postponing the election just a few days would have “risk[ed] disenfranchisement of voters” and could have resulted in additional violations.
“Of particular concern to our office is that, by postponing the election by just four days, you have not allowed sufficient time for a voter, including military or uniformed service voters, who may have been able to attend Tuesday's election, to request and return an absentee ballot by mail in the event that they are out of town on Saturday,” Broadhead wrote in a letter to Washington town officials.
Washington town moderator Barbara Gaskell says didn’t make the decision to delay lightly. She received the notices from the Secretary of State and attorney general’s office leading up to the election, warning towns not to reschedule, and she participated in a conference call last Monday where state officials reiterated that directive.
But after looking at the forecast, talking with the local road agent and consulting with selectmen, Gaskell determined it wouldn't be safe to ask voters to brave her town’s hilly terrain to get to the polls.
“We have a lot of small back roads people would have to negotiate in what was going to be a bad snowstorm,” Gaskell said. “So for the safety of the voters I just couldn’t ask them to come out in that weather.”
She plans to follow the state's orders but is concerned she's being unfairly punished for doing what she believed was right for her community.
“I seriously feel like I’m being bullied at this point,” Gaskell said. “I feel like their remedy of moving it further another three weeks is just ridiculous and over the top. It feels like they’re punishing us for standing up to the Secretary of State.”
While the attorney general’s office says Gaskell’s postponement of last week’s election “could constitute ‘official misconduct’ which is punishable as a misdemeanor,” they don’t plan to prosecute at this time.
The state did warn Gaskell and other Washington town officials that they could face additional penalties, or forced removal, if they don't comply moving forward.