NH must review its ‘felon’ election statute

Stacie Laughton will not represent Nashua’s Ward 4 in the House of Representatives for the next two years. After several days of intense waffling, she acknowledged on public access television Thursday that she‘s not entitled to serve because of several felony convictions.

“I am deeply saddened that it had to come to this,” she told Nashua state Rep. Ken Gidge during his Access Nashua show, “Gidge’s World.” “But as I said earlier, this resignation is in the best interest of myself, my party, the citizens of my district, and I’d even go as far as to say the state of New Hampshire as a whole. My wish is that we can just move on from here.”

Undoubtedly, Laughton is not alone. A lot of people would prefer that state officials treat the unfortunate incident as an anomaly and move on as if it never happened.

That’s not a responsible course of action. The circumstances surrounding her failed candidacy implore the state to review its election procedures to better prevent candidate miscues and public controversy.

A first step would be to reassess the content of its “Election Procedure Manual.” The 195-page document is required by law and is saturated with excellent information crucial to anyone involved in the election process – including candidates.

While the manual includes qualifications for candidates for all state offices, it doesn’t mention the state law that disqualifies Laughton – convicted felons cannot serve until their sentences are “fully discharged.” There is apparently some doubt over what “fully discharged” means, but it’s safe to say Laughton doesn’t meet that standard.

In 2008, Laughton was sentenced to 7 1? 2 to 15 years for conspiracy to commit credit card fraud and 3 1? 2 to seven years for falsifying physical evidence. The sentences were suspended, pending 10 years of good behavior. So, in essence, she won’t fully discharge her sentences until completing a decade of good behavior.

Laughton maintains that while she didn’t volunteer information about her criminal past, she didn’t hide it, either. She says she was willing to discuss it with anyone who asked. Furthermore, she says she wasn’t aware her felony convictions made it illegal for her to run for state office.

Whether it means requiring candidates to disclose their criminal pasts, sign an affidavit swearing compliance with the law or to fulfill some other fitting remedy, the state needs to establish rules that eliminate a candidate’s ability to plead ignorance.

The state also must consider what it should do about the fact that it has an election law on the books it’s unwilling and unable to enforce.

We found it more than a bit presumptuous that some officials we contacted suggested it’s the media’s responsibility to vet candidates for compliance. The state is too busy doing more important things, they said.

Well, so are we.

The state has three choices. One, it can provide the resources to conduct comprehensive criminal background checks on all candidates. Two, it can amend the law to put greater onus on candidates to come clean about their criminal pasts. Three, it can throw out the law altogether.

It’s not a choice to do nothing.