Who Should Have the Power to Reschedule Town Meetings? N.H. Senate Sides With the Secretary of State

Mar 8, 2018

As next Tuesday’s town meeting day approaches, state lawmakers are still dealing with the fallout from a nor'easter that delayed votes in dozens of communities across the state last year.

A bill approved by the Senate on Thursday sought to resolve an ongoing power struggle between the Secretary of State’s office and town officials over who should be able to postpone an election — for weather, safety or other reasons. 

In short, it requires towns to check with the Secretary of State before making any scheduling changes. The Secretary of State can, in turn, consult with public safety officials, meteorologists or others to decide whether a delay is warranted – and if he fails to respond within four hours, the town can go ahead and reschedule.

The bill also gives the Secretary of State the power to cancel elections in other limited circumstances, including a weather emergency.

“The cancellation of classes at public schools due to weather or the routine issuance of storm travel advisories by highway and safety officials alone shall not justify the postponement of election,” the bill reads. “Elections should be postponed only in extraordinary circumstances where there is a clear, imminent, and serious threat to public health or safety.”

While the bill has bipartisan support, it does have its critics. The New Hampshire Municipal Association, for one, has characterized it as a power grab by the state.

“To draft something that conflicts with existing statutes, creates unanswerable questions, and does significant damage to established town meeting procedures, all in an effort to give the [Secretary of State] unprecedented authority over town meetings, really begs the question of what voters are being served,” the association wrote in a recent legislative bulletin.

Those concerns were echoed at the State House on Thursday by Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, who introduced a municipal association-backed amendment that would shift the decision-making power back toward towns. The amendment ultimately failed.

Sen.  Jeff Woodburn was among those who pushed back on critiques from Clark and municipal officials, arguing that the legislation struck a reasonable balance. He said it would likely still allow towns to delay votes in many legitimate cases, but it’s designed to prevent towns from going rogue without a valid reason for rescheduling.

“It’s a beautiful day and a town decides to cancel their elections,” Woodburn posited. “And we’re like, what happened? We can’t even ask the question.”

While the bill makes its way through the Legislature, nothing will change for next week’s elections. If a snowstorm does interfere, the state is telling towns they shouldn’t plan to cancel.