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Derry moderator calls snow vote 'a real tragedy,' asks council to contact lawmakers

Union Leader Correspondent

March 21. 2018 10:47PM
Two Derry voters cast a ballot last week at West Running Brook Middle School. Voting officials in Derry say about 1,200 residents came out to the polls during the March 13 elections, which was a significant drop from the 2017 numbers. (CHRIS GAROFOLO/UNION LEADER)

DERRY — The Derry moderator on Tuesday night called on the Town Council to contact lawmakers and advocate for legislation that grants New Hampshire communities more authority over local elections after less than half of the expected voter cast a ballot last week.

Town Moderator Mary Till bemoaned the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s and Attorney General’s office’s decision to hold town elections on March 13 despite some communities receiving two feet of snow throughout the day.

“Ordinarily we’d expect about 2,500 voters, we had just under 1,200 voters, and I think that’s a real tragedy,” she said. “So I’d like to point out on that note that there is a bill in the Legislature, SB 438, that passed the (New Hampshire) Senate.”

Leading up to the March 13 elections, Secretary of State William M. Gardner and Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald called on all New Hampshire towns to continue with all voting operations despite the weather. State law, they asserted, does not authorize any public official to postpone an election.

The Sullivan County town of Washington was the only community in New Hampshire to postpone its election. After receiving an order from the AG’s office, the town will hold its elections on April 3.

The measure Till referred to would give authority to the Secretary of State to postpone elections. An amendment to give that power to towns failed, but the bill now goes to the New Hampshire House Election Law Committee.

“There it will receive another hearing and another going over. I hope it is an opportunity to amend it at that point to again refer the ability to set these election dates or postpone elections back into the hands of town officials,” Till said. “I recommend to you as a council, that perhaps you put together a letter to the election law committee and to our 10 state representatives … suggesting that they amend this bill so that we can keep the decision about whether or not to hold an election in the hands of people who know what our capability is.”

Till also recommended Derry voters upset with the snowy election to contact their representatives in the State House. There are three councilors who also serve as state representatives from Derry – Richard Tripp, Brian K. Chirichiello and Phyllis M. Katsakiores.

“Should SB438 actually get through the Legislature in pretty much the same form that it is now, the town council does have another option, and that is you have the ability to change the election day to the second Tuesday in April or the second Tuesday in May; although it’s not a simple process,” she added.

Some councilors warned if Derry were to make a large-scale move away from an early March election, there are other factors like the municipal budget adoption schedule and if a new vote aligns with the school district ballot.

Councilor at-large Josh Bourdon called voting one of “our sacred rights as Americans” and this year, that control was taken out of the town’s hands.

“And we had about 1,000 less voters,” he said. In total, there was about 650 fewer voters from 2017, according to the Town Clerk’s office.

Derry is not the only town to comment about the statewide decision to hold elections in the snowstorm.

“The local election officials are best equipped to determine safety conditions and resources available in these circumstances and as such, should have the authority to decide what is in the best interest of the voters in that locality,” said Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith, who noted voter turnout in his town was down 20 percent from 2017. “Handing down edicts from Concord on how municipalities should run their elections is the antithesis of the local control we pride ourselves on in New Hampshire.”

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