Column: N.H. Can, and Must, Do Better in Secretary of State’s Office

To the Valley News
Published: 12/3/2018 10:30:00 PM
Modified: 12/3/2018 10:30:04 PM

New Hampshire has a strong tradition of doing democracy better than anyone else — from our town meetings to our high turnout to our independent-minded electorate and our proven first-in-the nation presidential primary.

As a result, we have a duty to protect our democratic process fiercely. I respect Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s 42 years in office, and I also know that no one is entitled to this job, even after 42 years. I am asking lawmakers to consider me as a candidate for secretary of state because in recent years it has been increasingly clear that there is an urgent need for new leadership.

Our local officials need a secretary of state who brings clarity and cooperation — not the confusion and arbitrary decisions we saw in each of the last two Town Meeting blizzards.

Our voters deserve a secretary of state who will resist political controversies instead of embracing them, and who will always protect the rights of every eligible voter.

From hosting President Donald Trump’s “voter fraud” commission to lobbying for several new laws changing New Hampshire’s voter registration process, Gardner was far ahead of the Legislature, the governor and the courts in pushing some of the most controversial laws in recent years (which have not yet taken full effect).

At the same time, Gardner incorrectly told local clerks to remove thousands of eligible voters from our voter rolls in fall of 2017. This fall, his office misprinted ballots sent to 146 absentee and military voters oversees — leaving one candidate off the ballot entirely and listing others under the wrong political party.

His office lost numerous court cases in recent years that could have been easily settled, costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

We must do better.

I saw the need to modernize our Secretary of State’s Office while I served as a state executive councilor from 2012-2016.

New Hampshire citizens rely on this office and its hard-working staff not just on election days, but throughout the year — to register new businesses, to protect consumers and more. Many lawmakers are personally familiar with the frustration of a Secretary of State website that is often broken, of forms that sometimes just don’t make sense, and of arbitrary procedures dictated from the top that often seem locked in the past.

These inconveniences often cause real harm for other citizens, too — small-business owners who pay law firms money they can’t afford to navigate routine business filings, or rural doctors who say it often takes two to three attempts to successfully submit a death certificate online.

We need nonpartisan, positive policy proposals to strengthen this office, which I’ve outlined based on both my experience as an executive councilor and as an executive in the private sector. We can modernize the office — from streamlining business creation across state agencies to securing and fixing the Secretary of State website. We need a full financial audit — the first in more than 11 years — and ongoing transparency until the 11 “material weaknesses” identified in the last audit are addressed.

We need better consumer privacy protections in the Office of Vital Records and we should replace a politically appointed deputy position with a nonpartisan, professional director of elections (as other offices are currently managed).

And if elected I will always faithfully execute the state law requiring that our presidential primary be the first in the nation, without compromise.

When you take on an incumbent of 42 years, with an office in the Statehouse itself, it takes staff and resources to get your message out, so we’ve raised grassroots support from across the state (89 percent from New Hampshire and 82 percent in contributions of $100 or less) and we’ve used it to organize nonpartisan forums that hundreds of legislators have attended. We accepted no contributions from any PAC or corporation and gave no checks to any candidates or political parties.

This is a New Hampshire, grassroots-driven effort.

So much depends on our state’s well-earned reputation for democracy — especially true now, when our national democracy is in crisis. We urgently need new leadership that will focus on clarity not controversy, on customer service not confusion, and on building a nonpartisan, modern and accountable office on which our voters, local officials and businesses can rely. If elected, that will be my approach.

Colin Van Ostern, a Democrat, is a former executive councilor from Concord.

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