Local New Hampshire elections that historically happen in March could be pushed to as late as July this year due to COVID-19 concerns, state senators unanimously decided Wednesday.

Bipartisan legislation sponsored by state Sen. James Gray, R-Rochester, alters an existing law that allows local officials to postpone meetings for only 72 hours in case of emergency.

Towns at risk of having their spending authority expire due to voting delays would spend money based on the prior year’s budget until voters were able to approve a new warrant of spending articles.

The legislation also allows for early pre-processing of absentee ballots, extending current provisions through July 1, 2021.

Last year, the Legislature approved a bill giving town election officials more flexibility in processing absentee ballots to facilitate the fall 2020 elections. The measure allowed local officials to begin handling an increased number of absentee ballots ahead of Election Day, freeing up polls and streamlining results.

“Cities and towns across New Hampshire need to be able to plan for their upcoming local elections scheduled for March,” said state Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem.

He noted that the new legislation “provides the clarity and flexibility necessary during the pandemic to ensure the health and safety of voters, election officials and election day volunteers.”

Salem Town Moderator Christopher Goodnow said the legislation requires some action from selectmen, who are expected to discuss the topic at an upcoming meeting.

He described three options: Keeping the process untouched — with a deliberative session to discuss the warrant in February followed by voting on March 9; a series of Zoom calls to replace the deliberative session; or delaying both portions of the election process to as late as July.

“Regardless of the approach taken by selectmen, we will conduct these affairs in a way that safeguards the citizenry, the voters and the public officials themselves,” Goodnow said. “We’re going to take precautions and we’re going to make it safe.”

 

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