NH ATTORNEY GENERAL RESPONDS
On election day last March, Exeter voters may have noticed something unique about the school board candidate choices on their ballots: one very crowded race vs. one unopposed race occupied by an incumbent. What was not apparent to voters was that this ballot was not representative of the candidates’ intentions, and was instead the result of changes made by the SAU 16 administration after the filing period was closed.
The candidate filing period for the Exeter Elementary School Board seats was between January 18, 2022 and January 28, 2022. In all other SAU 16 towns, candidates for the elementary school boards file at the town offices. Exeter Elementary School Board candidate filing was handled by the SAU 16 office (as was filing for the Cooperative School District candidates). This year, there were an unprecedented three seats open on the Exeter Elementary School Board: two 3-year seats, and one 2-year seat, and a total of six candidates running for the open seats. Immediately before the close of the filing period, and for the following three days, the slate of candidates released by the SAU 16 office listed two candidates running for the 2-year term, and four candidates running for the two 3-year term seats. Then suddenly and without explanation on February 1, 2022 the slate of candidates was changed such that the incumbent, Ms. Ikemire, was running unopposed for the 2-year term, and her previously listed challenger, Ms. Drinker, was running for a 3-year term seat. This change essentially took one of the three seats out of play and guaranteed the re-election of the incumbent, Ms. Ikemire.
On February 9, ExeterPACT contacted the SAU 16 Central Office seeking an explanation for the change and received no response. ExeterPACT then filed a complaint with the NH Secretary of State Voter Division seeking an investigation, potential remedies prior to the election and a proposed resolution removing future candidate filings from the Central Office and transferring them to the Town Clerk.
During the investigation that followed, two candidates reported to the Attorney General’s office that they would have registered for the two-year term if they had known that the seat was going to be unopposed. The SAU administration claimed that a “clerical error” resulted in the change, as Ms. Drinker was mistakenly registered for the 2-year term, but always intended to run for the 3-year term. The candidate registration form, which was created by the SAU administration, did not have a place for the candidate to indicate which seat he or she intended to run for (although the Cooperative School Board candidate registration forms, also created by the SAU administration, did have a line for the candidates to choose which seat they were running for). Notably, the SAU administration did not deny that the change to the candidate slate was made after the filing period had closed.
On March 3, 2022, the findings of the investigation by the NH Attorney General’s office were received:
“SAU 16’s filing processes were deficient and resulted in detriment to candidates for the Exeter Elementary School Board races that are up for election on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. While there is insufficient evidence for this Office to find a violation of a specific stature, at a minimum a clerical error resulted in candidates mistakenly relying on faulty information…the SAU’s filing processes are clearly inadequate.”
The findings from the Deputy General Counsel continued, “The SAU’s filing processes were ripe for error and collateral consequences. The SAU must revise its filing procedures to ensure that avoidable errors are in fact avoided. Filing procedural improvements are essential to protect the democratic processes by which voters elect those to represent them. The SAU shall provide the Attorney General’s Office with an updated candidate filing form and procedure by March 31 2022.”
Despite these findings, at the April 12, 2022 School Board meeting, Assistant Superintendent Esther Asbell reported that they had received a letter from the State about the “confusion” with voting and filing, and their decision was that everything was “legitimate.” She also noted that the filing process would be moved to the Town office to avoid confusion. She somehow failed to include in her update that the State concluded the SAU 16 administration’s process was deficient, detrimental and required remedial action to protect the democratic process and the voters.
However, the SAU 16 Central Office did comply with the request and submitted their remediation plan on March 28, 2022, transferring all filing obligations to the Town of Exeter Town Office, which is consistent with the other five towns in the SAU. On April 29, 2022 we received confirmation of the remediation plans and the matter was closed.
We found the errors that occurred in this process alarming, unfair to the candidates who sought election for the Exeter Elementary School Board and to the voters in our community. We are grateful for the prompt investigation by the Attorney General’s office and their demand for revised election procedures from the SAU 16 Central Office. Not only would changes to candidate filing after the deadline pass render an election invalid per RSA 671:19 and RSA 669:19, these "errors" impacted the decisions of other candidates and resulted in the disparate treatment of the candidates. Of equal importance, "errors" such as this result in the perception that the proper handling of candidate filing exceeds the competency levels of our administrative office.
We believe in fair elections, equitable processes, and the preservation of data integrity. We are satisfied that our request that all future candidate filings for Exeter Elementary School will be supervised by the Town Clerk at Town Hall, as they are in all the other SAU16 towns, was granted. Not only will this decrease the already large workload on our administration, but the change also ensures a seamless and proper filing period, which is the right thing for both candidates and voters.
During the run up to the 2022 election, we heard a lot of talk from candidates and the administration about the commitment to increased transparency and improved communication. ExeterPACT intends to hold those that made that commitment accountable. In this instance, the failure to be transparent with the community, and in particular the voters, about the errors made in candidate registration and the results of the Attorney General’s investigation certainly falls short of that stated goal.