Any town, school district or cooperative school district that raises and appropriates funds at an annual meeting can adopt a process whereby all warrant articles are given their final vote by official ballot.
If this approach is adopted, the annual town meeting will consist of two sessions:
At the first session—the deliberative session, often held in late January/early February—participants have the opportunity to discuss, debate, and possibly amend the articles on the warrant. The purpose of the first session is to determine the wording of the articles, the final form of ballot questions. While the wording of some warrant articles may not be amended (e.g. zoning articles) the general rule is that all other warrant articles are subject to amendment. For example, an appropriation article could be amended down from $250,000.00 to $0. The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that deleting all language from a warrant article except the words "To see'" was permissible.
Typically held the second Tuesday in March, the second session consists of the election of town/school officers (selectmen, school board) and final action on all articles as they emerged from the deliberative session. The voting is conducted by written ballot without further discussion, debate or amendment. The voter has the power to say "yes" or "no" to what the first session did, but not to alter it.
The most significant vote at this session relates to the proposed town budget, which has been prepared by the town's governing body and may or may not have been amended at the first session. The voters must choose between this proposed budget and a "default" budget which is determined by a formula and is automatically enacted if the proposed budget fails to receive a majority vote.
The "default budget" is defined by RSA 40: 13 IX (b), as follows: "Default budget as used in this subdivision means the amount of the same appropriations as contained in the operating budget authorized for the previous year, reduced and increased, as the case may be, by debt service, contracts, and other obligations previously incurred or mandated by law, and reduced by one-time expenditures contained in the operating budget. For the purposes of this paragraph, one-time expenditures shall be appropriations not likely to recur in the succeeding budget, as determined by the governing body, unless the provisions of RSA 40:14-b are adopted, of the local political subdivision."
NH towns still split on SB2
A number of communities have repealed or tried to repeal SB2 since the time they adopted it. Here's a list from the state Department of Revenue Administration of towns that adopted SB2 and whether they've repealed it.
Supporters of SB2 argue that it is more convenient for voters to attend the polls than to schedule attendance at a long town meeting. In a statement, David Cedarholm, founder of the Lee Citizens Alliance, said "Town meeting should not require a survivor level of energy that requires participants to 'outwit, outplay, and outlast' in order to participate in the basic democratic process."
Opponents of SB2 counter that without participating in a meeting, most voters are ignorant about the details of the budget that appears on the ballot. Similarly, low attendance at deliberative sessions can allow small groups to "hijack" the final budget.
"Towns should support the SB2 alternative to town meetings."
A minority of voters can control the town meeting:
- The town meeting approves the town budget and warrant articles at a day-long town meeting where only a couple hundred votes are cast and there is the potential that a special interest group pushing their own issues and agendas could take control of ballot and budget issues.
The official ballot is more democratic:
- With the official ballot, voters have time to think about the issues on the ballot after hearing the arguments at a deliberative session. Under the town meeting format, you are forced to make an immediate decision without thinking about the consequences of the vote. Also, the voting takes place in the privacy of the voting booth without the pressure of fellow citizens.
The official ballot allows for more time to consider/research issues before voting:
- Official ballot voting at the second session allows more citizens to participate in the democratic process. In order to vote at the town meeting, you need to have the time and energy to stay for a whole day. For citizens with young children, or elderly citizens, this detracts from people attending town meetings.
"Towns should reject the SB2 alternative to town meetings."
Loss of resident interest and poor attendance at the deliberative session:
- Because the voting power at the deliberative session, the first meeting, is not final, the meeting is considered lacking in importance. Data from towns that have SB2 show a marked reduction in meeting attendance. In many cases the small number of attendees means the quality of the debate is poor and they tend to go along with the recommendations of the governing body.
Loss of control over town budget:
- People who are interested in controlling their town budget - the most important matter facing voters - and who failed to attend the deliberative session find that they have become disenfranchised. When they go to vote, they must either vote for the proposed budget that in their view may be too high or a "default budget" that may be even higher. Alternatively, the difference between the two may be insignificant, which is not a true vote.
Long, drawn out process and uninformed voters:
- Final voting action is so far removed from whatever debate or discussion that took place at the deliberative session, people can lose track of what was discussed at the first meeting. And most voters do not attend the deliberative session at all. The result can be legions of confused and uninformed voters.
Additional costs when SB2 is added:
- The conversion to SB2 requires an investment by the participating town. Many residents in SB2 towns say that electronic voting machines are very important. The size of the ballot increases and becomes difficult to manage.
Special interest groups can overwhelm town budgets to get their way:
- Towns need to budget for websites, newsletters and other media in order to get information out to the public prior to the voting session. On some issues, special interest groups will spend the most money to get resident votes.
Not necessary to change to SB2 to garner its advantages:
- A town does not need to have SB2 to put warrant articles on the official ballot. This objective is sometimes given as to why SB2 should be adopted. All voters have to do is adopt a town charter which puts in place whatever voting rules or procedures they find desirable for their town. Many towns have such a charter.