Questions Raised About Booths in Lobby During Election

Questions of legality arose on Election Day when voters were greeted at the polls by advocates for warrant articles on the Town and School District’s ballots.

Town Councilor Joe Green and several members of the public expressed concern when they saw Fire Chief Darren O’Brien and other firefighters manning a booth displaying information about the department, as well as a booth with information about the proposed community auditorium manned by a volunteer and Tony DeFranceso, who headed up the auditorium subcommittee.

“Article 659:44-A says it’s a misdemeanor for any public employee to electioneer while in the performance of his or her official duties,” said Town Councilor Joe Green, noting he didn’t personally hear O’Brien or the other firefighters advocate for Article 14, which asked voters to appropriate $263,144 for four additional firefighters.

Green said he believes the Town should “let the article speak for itself, and if people want it they will support it.”

DeFrancesco said Mis-sy Haas, who was staffing the informational booth about the auditorium, is a volunteer and emphasized they were not soliciting votes, but rather answering questions from voters who stopped to talk.

“The feedback has been pretty positive,” he said.

At the Fire Department’s booth, O’Brien said he was not there to advocate for the warrant article, but to answer voters’ questions and provide information about what the department does and how its funding is utilized.

Green said he was concerned by the Fire Department’s presence because of the potential for an officer to make a comment that could be interpreted as electioneering, and because he thinks voters were not privy to all the information they would need to make an informed decision.

Additionally, Green said he thinks voters may have been swayed to vote in favor of Article 14 when the last thing they saw walking into the voting booth were Fire officials in full uniform with materials featuring photos of their response to emergencies in the Town.

“I just want to make sure the taxpayer has the right information,” said Green, who contacted Moderator Cindi Rice-Connelly for permission to erect an informational booth of his own in the gym lobby during the election.

“I am allowing him to have a booth, but he should have contacted me before the election to make the request,” Rice-Connelly said at the polls.

Around noon on Election Day, Green was working to find someone to go to the gym to provide information in his place, as he was in Massachusetts for work.

Green said he hadn’t considered attending the election to provide information because two years ago the Town ran into issues when voters complained about a booth promoting funding for trails in town.

“It was a big to-do then and it was my impression this year we’d have a vanilla election with no contested races,” he said.

Town Attorney Mike Ramsdell said following an investigation two years ago, the Attorney General’s Office concluded the informational booths could be permitted as long as the people manning them were not soliciting votes.

In a letter to the Town dated July 8, 2014, Paul Brodeur wrote that based on the findings of an investigation of concerns over informational booths in the high school’s field house, the Attorney General’s Office determined “there was no violation of RSA 659:44, although the concerns were worthy of review.

“In Londonderry, the moderator gives explicit instructions to the persons staffing the displays to not approach the voters, but they may answer questions. Therefore, the moderator has the authority and has taken the necessary steps to guarantee that the voters have free passage to vote,” the letter says.

Rice-Connelly said she was contacted with requests for the informational booths related to the auditorium and the Fire Department and granted permission so that voters would have the opportunity to gather more information if they chose to do so.

“If they didn’t want or need the information, they didn’t have to stop,” she said.

Brodeur confirmed on Election Day that the Attorney General’s Office was not sending any representatives to the polls to investigate the informational booths that had been set up in the field house.

“We have gotten a few calls about the booths, but we reviewed the issue a couple years ago and determined booths to provide information to voters are not contrary to any election laws,” he said.

Brodeur said they received a call from someone concerned over the firefighters’ presence at the polls, but the person would not go on the record with a complaint they could investigate.

Results from the March 10 election, which concluded after the Londonderry Times went to press, can be found at Town Meeting Results, with a story about the election in the March 19 edition of the Londonderry Times.

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