For a second straight year, Mother Nature swirled up a nor’easter that threatened local elections prompting many towns, like Londonderry, to advertise the use of absentee ballots. Voting by absentee ballot can only be done in certain circumstances, and unfortunately, terrible weather is not one of them.
The Town of Londonderry’s website posted a public notice on March 12, inviting those who would be out of town to pick up an absentee ballot at the Town Clerk’s Office so they could still vote.
The post said, “if you think you will be out of town and not able to make it to the polls, you may pick up and fill out an ABSENTEE BALLOT at Town Hall.”
There was an update on the website later in the day to clarify what “not able to make it to the polls,” meant. In the updated post, it said “you may only vote via absentee ballot today if you meet the criteria of such set in state law which includes being out of town, employment commitment which prevents you from voting on election day, or religious commitment.” There was a further clarification within the post to elaborate on what “employment commitment” meant, stating that it “includes taking care of children and/or infirm adults, with or without compensation.”
In short, not being able to get to the high school due to snow does not meet the criteria to be able to vote via absentee ballot.
Last year, many communities across the state ended up postponing Town Meeting Day due to the severe inclement weather. This year, however, the state put its foot down and said that despite the snow, the elections must go on.
“New Hampshire law does not contain a provision that authorizes any public official to postpone an election,” according to a statement issued by Secretary of State William Gardner and Attorney General Gordon MacDonald.
The pair issued a memo to town officials across the Granite State on March 6, explaining the state’s expectations for local elections. Under the law, Town Moderators are allowed to postpone deliberative sessions in towns that are considered SB2 towns. According to RSA 40:13, Londonderry is that kind of town since it has separate sessions for deliberations and voting. Moderators can also postpone the business meetings in town “due to weather emergencies,” only if the community had previously adopted RSA 39:2-a (which is a regulation for town meetings). If a business meeting and town election are scheduled for the same day, the moderator can only postpone the meeting, not the vote.
“The law does not authorize local or state officials to postpone the town elections,” said Gardner and MacDonald in their statement.
Londonderry delayed its elections by a week last year, moving it from March 14 to March 21. That decision was made by Town Moderator Bob Saur and School Moderator Cindi Rice Conley after consulting with Town Manager Kevin Smith, Fire Chief Darren O’Brien, Police Chief Bill Hart and several other town officials. Saur and Conley also consulted with Town Attorney Michael Ramsdell, who told Conley that he did not see any legal challenges to changing the date, according a story run by the Londonderry Times last year.
Although residents of Londonderry were able to vote in sunnier conditions last year, they were not allowed the same courtesy this year and are expected to brave future storms like grizzled New Englanders to exercise their right to vote. However, a new bill by state Sen. Jeff Woodburn of Whitefield could lead to some clarification on how towns are to deal with elections that run into extreme weather conditions. The bill is still in its early stages.