New Laws Affecting Town Meeting

Cordell Johnston, Government Affairs Counsel

In addition to the new law on town meeting postponement (see separate article), there are a couple other new laws in effect for this year’s town meeting cycle.

Changed Process for Adopting SB 2

One of the new laws received much less attention than the postponement law, but it will likely have a greater impact. HB 415 amended RSA 40:14, the statute that prescribes the method for adopting the official ballot referendum (SB 2) form of town meeting. 

Since its enactment in 1995, the process for adopting SB 2 has required placing the following question on the official ballot: “Shall we adopt the provisions of RSA 40:13 (SB 2) to allow official ballot voting on all issues before the town on the second Tuesday of [March/April/May]?”

Under the amended law, the question remains the same, but it is not placed on the official ballot. Instead, it is voted on at the business session of the annual meeting. The new law states that “voting on the question shall be by ballot, but the question shall not be placed on the official ballot used to elect officers.” Voting must remain open for at least one hour—the same as for a bond vote.

This is of interest to those towns that have not already adopted SB 2—approximately two-thirds of the towns in the state. Some towns have gotten used to seeing SB 2 petitions and placing them on the official ballot every year; selectmen will need to remember that the question now goes on the warrant for action at the business session, and not on the official ballot.

The process for rescinding SB 2 has not changed—that question still must go on the official ballot. This, of course, is because once a town has adopted SB 2, the only way it can vote on any question is by official ballot.

Ballot Counts if Voter’s Intent Can Be Determined

HB 146 added a new section, RSA 40:4-g, which states, “In any vote conducted pursuant to this chapter, every ballot shall be counted if the intent of the voter can be determined, regardless of whether the voter followed any instructions relative to marking the ballot provided before the vote.” The reference to “this chapter” means RSA 40, which governs town meeting procedures.

It addresses a situation such as a secret ballot vote at town meeting in which voters receive ballots with “yes” and “no” printed on them. Perhaps they are instructed to circle their choice, but a voter instead crosses out the “no” instead of circling “yes.” Or perhaps voters are instructed to tear the ballot down the middle and deposit only the “yes” or the “no” half in the box. Some voters instead circle “yes” or “no” and deposit the entire ballot. In both cases the voters did not follow instructions, but their intent is clear. Most moderators would have counted the ballots anyway, but the new law clarifies that they must. The new law is analogous to RSA 659:64, which instructs election officials to count a ballot if they can agree on what the voter intended; but that statute applies only to the election of officers, not to other ballot votes.