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Editorial: New Hampshire Needs a New Secretary of State

  • Bill Gardner


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Over the years — many, many, many of them — New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner has earned a name for himself as the foremost defender of the state’s coveted first-in-the-nation primary status. While we consider New Hampshire’s vaunted reputation as a proving ground for aspiring presidential candidates to be somewhat overblown, there’s no doubt that Gardner has been a zealous and effective advocate for the Granite State’s primary primacy, and the quadrennial prestige and economic boost that it provides.

But there’s a lot more to the secretary of state’s job than fending off primary challenges from other states. And Gardner’s tenure during the past couple of years has been marked by lapses in judgment that have seriously tarnished his office and the state as a whole. After 42 years on the job, it’s time for him to go, and we urge the new Legislature, when it convenes Dec. 5 for organization day, to turn to fresh leadership for this important office.

Among Gardner’s puzzling actions recently was his enthusiastic collaboration with President Donald Trump’s sham voter fraud commission, convened to vindicate Trump’s fantasy that he lost the popular vote in 2016 because millions of people voted illegally. The commission folded ignominiously a few months after it was created, but before it did Gardner not only agreed to participate as a member but also proposed to share a treasure trove of sensitive voter information with it. By contrast, many state election officials around the country honorably refused to cooperate with an entity whose very existence was dedicated to furthering the spurious claim that American elections are beset by widespread fraud, a claim that enjoys no known basis in fact.

Gardner’s rationale for participating was weak: that it was important to restore public confidence in the electoral process at a time when its integrity was in doubt. This ignored the central fact that conservatives in politics and the media have long sought to undermine faith in elections by claiming fraud. These evidence-free claims have been a prelude to a systematic nationwide effort to suppress voting by groups that favor Democrats — especially the young and the poor.

That effort found expression in New Hampshire in the passage of two Republican-sponsored bills that tightened the state’s voter eligibility requirements, placing new obstacles in the path of college students and others who want to vote in New Hampshire. Gardner supported both bills.

One of them, SB3, requires those registering to vote within 30 days of an election to provide proof of residency and imposes financial penalties for those who do not produce the necessary documents within a fixed time period after the election. When, a couple of weeks before the midterm election, Superior Court Judge Kenneth Brown issued an injunction blocking the law from taking effect, Gardner’s office inexplicably had no backup plan in place to guide local election officials in how to proceed. “The fact that this ruling came down and there’s no contingency plan in the Secretary of State’s Office is astounding,” Hanover Town Clerk Betsy McClain said at the time. Eventually, the state Supreme Court bailed out Gardner by temporarily lifting the injunction and allowing the law’s procedures to be followed until the election took place.

Gardner is being challenged in his bid for a 22nd two-year term by former Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern and former state Rep. Peter Sullivan, both Democrats (as is Gardner). Both challengers have ambitious plans to modernize the Secretary of State’s Office, make it more accountable to the Legislature and the public, and to promote the right to vote, not restrict it.

All 400 state representatives and 24 state senators will vote on Dec. 5, either to re-elect Gardner or choose a replacement. Gardner’s trump card may be his record of protecting the New Hampshire primary against all comers. But legislators ought to carefully weigh just how important that is at a time when New Hampshire’s chief election official is undermining faith in the integrity of the state’s elections.