The New England Blizzard of 2017 – who here will ever forget it? The 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 so recently has our state government attempted to wreak havoc: officials attempted 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 NH 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.
Postponing Town Meeting
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.
Local Decision-making Offends State Officials
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. SB 248 was simple, straightforward and sensible – like most Granite Staters. The bill Senator 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.” Common sense 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. Senator 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.
House Speaker’s Assault on Democracy
Instead of protecting the actions of local officials and accepting the majority vote of Townspeople, House Speaker Shawn Jasper attempted to amend SB 108 and assault direct democracy in New Hampshire communities. Had the House Election Law Committee not cast a tie-vote on the non-germane amendment to SB 108, it would have passed to the House Floor for a vote. If the full House had passed SB 108, it would have forced voters to hold special elections, at no small cost to our communities. The special elections would have required voters in communities where election day was postponed, to then “ratify” the votes taken on the rescheduled election dates!
That “ratification” wouldn’t have taken place until May. Meanwhile, decisions made by voters at the polls would be on hold, their votes vetoed legislatively, their elected officials held in suspended animation. Worst of all, Speaker Jasper’s hand grenade of an amendment said that if voters in May rejected the snow-day results, then all votes cast would have been null and void, all warrant articles would have been considered defeated, and all the positions voted for would be vacant.
New Hampshire, with the motto “Live Free or Die,” was at the threshold of state elected officials unashamedly taking complete control over our towns.
Really? Since when is it acceptable to suggest voters get to vote to support or negate the votes of their neighbors and overturn adopted warrant articles? This was rich, Mister Speaker!
State Control vs. State Motto
We all know how the votes played out in our communities, and the public has accepted them. But think about how this could have played out: If some folks didn’t like how the vote went in their town, they would have had the opportunity to campaign again for an additional month. They could have re-influenced the vote up until May 23rd, according to Representative Jasper’s attempted amendment in SB 108. This was 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 have preferred to win a second time around.
State political operatives were seeking to require towns to hold a “special meeting” at a date dictated by the state, with the question before the voters being determined by the state. This would have amounted to an unfunded state-mandate while nullifying the vote of the people. New Hampshire, with the motto “Live Free or Die,” was at the threshold of state elected officials unashamedly taking complete control over our towns.
Representative Jasper’s anti-democratic amendment is dead for now. However, it doesn’t mean it won’t be back. There are still remaining bills in the House and Senate Election Law Committees that are accessible to be amended.
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.
The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) assists communities across the U.S. and internationally to advance Community Rights and the Rights of Nature: the rights of communities to local, democratic self-government; the right to a healthy environment; the rights of workers; and the rights of nature to exist and flourish. We rely on your support to advance these rights! Please donate today. You make a difference.