The purest form of democracy is about to get doused in hand sanitizer.
Coronavirus concerns are coinciding with New Hampshire's Town Meeting season, when voters come together to debate and vote on local budgets and other issues. The tradition typically involves hundreds of people packed into a high school gym for the better part of a day, ingesting both bake sale goodies and hours of arguments.
“It's the most organic and participative and direct form of government, because the citizens not only vote on items, they also get a chance to shape what those items are,” said Margaret Byrnes, executive director of the New Hampshire Municipal Association. “You get this opportunity for debate that doesn't happen at a polling place, and you get an opportunity for amendments by the will of the people.”
Nearly all of the state's 221 towns are holding local elections Tuesday with voters going to the polls to choose selectmen, school board members and other officers. While voters in 72 communities also decide spending and other issues at the ballot box, 141 towns still host the traditional meetings, Byrnes said, often the weekend following the election. She's been hearing from officials across the state as concerns over the new virus grow.
State law allows town moderators to postpone elections or town meetings under certain circumstances, including an “emergency” that they believe would render the gathering place unsafe. But none have said they plan to invoke that provision, Byrnes said.
“It's on the minds of some municipal officials that it exists, but we haven't heard that anyone is going that route," Byrnes said. "So it looks like elections and town meetings will proceed.”
Voters can expect some minor changes, however, mostly in the form of hand sanitizer and hygiene reminders. And in Plainfield? Personal pens and pencils.
Town moderator Paul Franklin said voters can bring their own pencils or pens to mark ballots Tuesday or they will be handed a new one when they check in.
“We're just trying to use some common sense,” he said. As for the town meeting on Saturday, he expects a question on approving $1 million for a new library will attract a significant number of voters. Typical turnout is about 200 voters, though a similar question last year drove attendance up over 400, he said.
In Henniker, where voters are being asked to approve $3.2 million for wastewater upgrades, town administrator Joseph Devine said officials are taking similar measures: frequently disinfecting of surfaces, making hand sanitizer available and ensuring that restrooms are stocked with soap and paper towels.
“We haven’t heard anyone staying away because of it,” he said. “I think people just need to really concentrate on frequent hand washing and things like that. They need to use their own common sense in terms of staying home if they’re not feeling well.”
More than half of the world's countries have now reported a combined total of more than 110,000 cases of the new coronavirus. Four men have tested positive in New Hampshire, including two who recently traveled to Italy. One of them lives in Rockingham County. The other lives in Grafton County, where officials say he then infected a second man who in turn infected a third.
State health officials said Monday they are monitoring more than 200 people who have had contact with the patients or recently traveled overseas. Byrnes said it's possible virus concerns could tamp down Town Meeting turnout, but it appears most people are carrying on with normal activities.
“Attendance can be affected by a lot of different things," she said. “And New Hampshire folks are known for being strong willed.”