Editorial: N.H. Secretary of State Has a Big To-Do List

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, right, laughs with New Hampshire Secretary of State William M. Gardner, left, after he was re-elected as secretary of state at the Statehouse, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018, in Concord, N.H. In New Hampshire's secretary of state race that could affect the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary standing, lawmakers decided to go with a longtime veteran. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

Published: 12/13/2018 10:09:57 PM
Modified: 12/13/2018 10:10:09 PM

If there’s an art to political longevity, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner is the Rembrandt of re-election.

It took two secret tallies, and the final margin was a mere four votes out of the 415 legislators casting ballots, but Gardner eventually secured his 22nd term last week, overcoming a stout, nine-month, $250,000 challenge by former two-term executive councilor and 2016 gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern.

In an oddly passive turn of phrase after his narrowest-ever victory, Gardner, 70, told lawmakers: “I’m very, very grateful for those of you that have let this happen.” He then hung his hat, as he has for many of his 42 years in office, on his much-lauded role as protector of New Hampshire’s status as host of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

As we have argued in this space before, that’s no longer good enough. Sure, the primary brings the klieg lights and the satellite trucks, and it pumps some money into the economy every four years. But the Secretary of State’s Office has responsibilities far beyond hyping the quadrennial dog-and-pony show of White House wannabes — it oversees elections, new business creation, corporate securities and the vital records of all the state’s citizens, among other functions — and Gardner has not kept up. Worse, his decision to participate in President Donald Trump’s bogus voter fraud commission, and his support of two Republican-sponsored bills that would make it more difficult for people — especially young people — to vote in New Hampshire, have left us questioning his judgment. We’d also like to hear him explain what has been done to prevent outside bad actors, such as the Russians, from compromising a state election.

In his issue-packed campaign platform, Van Ostern, 39, who holds an MBA from the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, argued for a wide variety of reforms and modernization efforts — some of which lawmakers can accomplish on their own, and some that need only administrative action by the Secretary of State’s Office. Rather than see his razor-thin win as some sort of “mandate” to maintain the status quo, Gardner should consider the issues raised by Van Ostern as a to-do list for the next two years. For example, he should:

■ Overhaul the office’s website. Van Ostern cited complaints by business owners who have had to pay for legal advice in order to complete routine online business filings, and doctors who are able to submit a simple death certificate only after multiple attempts. In a commentary in New Hampshire Business Review, 2016 Executive Council candidate Dan Weeks, of Nashua, recalled encountering “one technical error after another” while trying to file campaign reports on the office’s online system. A mobile app for businesses was announced in 2014 and is still not available. If New Hampshire really wants to be seen as “business friendly,” it’s hard to make that case with a balky, outdated, difficult-to-use website.

■ Be accountable. The Secretary of State’s Office should make it a point to let New Hampshire citizens know how it’s doing. How long do businesses have to wait for a trade name to be registered? How many new businesses were created in the state last year? Making these kinds of metrics easily available can help show prospective businesses that the state really is interested in helping them succeed.

■ OK new vote tabulators: According to Van Ostern, nearly 90 percent of ballots in New Hampshire are counted by machines, and many of them are 15 years old or older. Cities and towns are waiting for the Secretary of State’s Office to certify available replacement models. What’s the holdup?

■ Avoid partisan advocacy: Gardner’s reputation was stained by his participation in Trump’s sham voter fraud panel, and by his testimony backing partisan efforts to restrict voting rights. Legislators “are better served by facts, not opinions,” Van Ostern wrote recently. We agree.

Since the secretary of state works for lawmakers, they, too, have a role. In the next two years, they should:

■ Check the books. The last audit of the Secretary of State’s Office was conducted in 2007 and highlighted a number of “material weaknesses,” including deficiencies in processing the millions of dollars in revenue the office takes in each year. It also noted shortcomings in mutual fund registration and information technology controls, and said the operation of the vital records information system required improvement. The money the office collects, the 11-year-old audit noted dryly, “should be deposited into statutorily designated accounts.” No kidding. An audit of the office must be conducted immediately to determine if these problems have been addressed, and audits should be conducted much more frequently.

■ Deal with Town Meeting blizzard confusion. If a significant snowstorm hits the state on Town Meeting day — the way it did last March, and the March before — local officials need to be able to make decisions based on what is best for their towns or cities, and for voters. They deserve clarity from state law and from state officials, including the secretary of state, not the confusion, rote responses and veiled threats they’ve been getting. This needs to be fixed now.

Best of luck, Mr. Secretary of State. You have lots of work to do.

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