Mar 15, 2017 10:11 PM

Top Statehouse Dems make push to protect elections delayed by storm; criticize governor

NH1.COM

CONCORD – A push by the top two Democrats in the State House to make sure that the results of town elections delayed by Tuesday’s powerful nor’easter are “legalized, ratified, and confirmed” cleared its first legislative hurdle on Wednesday.

The measure, by state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn and state House of Representatives Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff was allowed to proceed by the Senate Rules and Enrolled Bills Committee.

The panel made their decision after Woodburn testified in support of his bill.

But New Hampshire’s secretary of state said he didn’t know if the results of the delayed elections would be considered valid.

Around 40% of communities across the state postponed Tuesday’s Town Meeting Day elections due to the powerful winter storm, which as the day progressed made travel difficult at best, and treacherous in many cases. Most of the towns that delayed their elections rescheduled their voting to Thursday, Saturday, or next Tuesday.

“People are going to vote. They want to go and know that their votes are going to be counted and the process is legitimate. And this would do that. We’ve done it in the past. It’s important that people have that trust that their vote is important, it’s valued, it will be counted. The decisions will be ratified by the state. That’s the goal here,” Woodburn told NH1 News.

Shurtleff told NH1 News that “from everything I’ve heard what the town moderators did yesterday was the correct thing when they closed the polls for reasons of public safety. But if there’s any doubt in anybody’s mind about the justification, the bill Sen. Woodburn and I are going to put in removes that doubt.”

Governor urged towns not to delay voting

The postponements were the first time in state’s modern history that a large number of towns decided to delay voting, and those decisions came even as Gov. Chris Sununu said he was "strongly" recommending but not mandating that towns stay open to allow voting. And he emphasized that towns that postpone their elections do so “at their own risk.”

Sununu made his comments on Monday afternoon, after speaking with the state Department of Justice and the Secretary of State’s office.

“I don’t think we’re in a position to mandate that towns stay open or reverse their direction if they so choose not to, but we do strongly recommend that they do stay open,” the governor said.

"If towns do choose, and make that choice on their own, at their risk, frankly, to make a decision to postpone their voting. We got on the phone and wanted to make them aware of some recommendations that we had, such as ensuring that someone was at least available either at the polling places or town offices with absentee ballots so folks coming in to vote could at least obtain an absentee ballot, if they were not going to be available for the rescheduled voting day," he added.

Sununu’s comments tried to clear up confusion as a growing list of town moderators earlier that day decided to postpone their elections, insisting that state law granted them the power to delay voting in the event of a weather emergency. But the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office pointed to another state law that clearly dictates that town elections are held on the second Tuesday of March, which this year fell on March 14.

The committee backed a motion by Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley “to allow this bill in.”

Bradley said that the bill would receive a public hearing next week.

Woodburn said that the bill is “aimed only to ensure those places, those voters who are in those communities where their elections were moved, that those results would be honored.”

Democrats claim governor’s words added to confusion

Asked by NH1 News how he felt New Hampshire’s Republican governor handled the situation regarding the voting, the Democrat from the North Country answered “I’m a former town moderator. I know in my town of Whitefield, no one is sitting around waiting around for Gov. Sununu to tell them whether they should move the meeting, change it, or keep going. They made a judgement based on their own information, on their own local history, geography, weather conditions. It only created confusion and uncertainty in people’s minds and I think that is not helpful for our democracy to have that uncertainty.”

It was a similar answer from Shurtleff, who said “there was a tremendous amount of confusion and I think in some respects the governor’s words as well as the Secretary of State’s office just added to that confusion.”

He added that the announcement by the governor “put these citizens in jeopardy travelling in the terrible blizzard we had yesterday.”

While Woodburn and Shurtleff emphasized that their measure deals only with this year’s delayed elections, both were open to future legislation that would clearly dictate whether the state or the towns have the ultimate authority when it comes to delaying elections due to horrific weather conditions. They predicted the issue could be tackled in the next legislative session.

“I fully expect that we will through the legislative process tighten up this question. We have some time to do it and I think we should do it,” Woodburn said.

“The state government of New Hampshire should not be dictating this on our local communities,” he added.

Shurtleff said that going forward there could be a “bill next session calling for a study committee to look at this issue to bring clarity the two conflicting pieces of current law.”

Gardner: ‘Who knows’ if delayed elections will be considered valid

But Secretary of State Bill Gardner doesn’t feel there’s any conflict with the state law.

“The law says that all towns shall annually vote for their town officers on the second Tuesday in March. That’s what the law says,” Gardner told NH1 News.

And he said the state statute that town moderators pointed to in making their decisions to delay the voting is in reference to the town meetings and not the actual elections held on that day.

“There’s a difference between town meetings and the election of officers,” the longest serving secretary of state in the nation added. “There is nothing in the law that says a town can have a town election on a Thursday or a Saturday or a week later.”

Gardner highlighted “that person who came in yesterday morning at nine o’clock is not going to be around now, and he went to vote and he went to see if he could get an absentee ballot before he left and he couldn’t. So he said he was pretty upset that he lost his vote because he’s not going to be able to be here now.”

Asked if he thought the elections that were delayed will be considered valid, Gardner answered “who knows.”

State Sen. Jeff Woodburn testifies in front of the Senate Rules and Enrolled Bills Committee, on March 15, 2017

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