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On eve of voter commission hearing in N.H., Bill Gardner in middle of partisan divide

  • New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner says show the proof of busloads of people from Massachusetts. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Secretary of State Bill Gardner talks about the history of the New Hampshire Primary during a celebration of the event’s 100th anniversary at the State House on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015. ELIZABETH FRANTZ



For the Monitor
Monday, September 11, 2017

Facing a barrage of criticism from fellow Democrats over his participation in a voting panel created by President Donald Trump, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner says sometimes you have to weather “short-term pain in order to achieve long term gain”.

On the eve of the second meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which Gardner is hosting Tuesday at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, the longtime secretary of state called the incoming fire “a slash-and-burn attitude” that’s a sign of today’s very partisan times.

“It’s ‘don’t talk to people you don’t agree with, don’t be willing to understand where they’re coming from,’ ” Gardner said.

Gardner has faced a chorus of calls from leading Granite State Democrats, including the entire congressional delegation and top State House leaders, to resign from the commission after co-chairman Kris Kobach claimed Thursday that voter fraud in New Hampshire may have led to Maggie Hassan’s extremely narrow victory last November over incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

The ire directed at Gardner is nearly unprecedented under his tenure. Gardner was elected to his position in 1976 and re-elected by state lawmakers every two years. He is the longest-serving secretary of state in the nation and has long been respected by both Democrats and Republicans for his decades-long battle to protect New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

Wedging the partisan divide even wider, leading State House Republicans made it a point to publicly praise Gardner late Monday, saying he’s “one of our most regarded and well-respected public servants,” and criticizing Democrats for attacking him for his service on the panel.

Even before joining the election commission, Gardner faced increasing attacks from his own party due to his support of a GOP-backed bill signed into law by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu that tightens the requirements for new voters to prove they are domiciled in New Hampshire. Democrats argued Senate Bill 3 is a voter supression effort to make it more difficult for young people – especially college students – to vote in state elections and have challenged the law in court.

Then in May, Gardner accepted a seat on Trump’s election commission, which opponents say is nothing more than an effort to justify Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of massive voter fraud in last November’s election.

After commission Vice Chairman and Kansas Secretary of State Kobach’s cited a report compiled by Gardner and released by state House Speaker Shawn Jasper, a Republican, as evidence of fraudulent voting in the state in an opinion piece in the conservative Breitbart news site, the state’s all-Democrat congressional delegation urged Gardner to quit the commission.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Hassan wrote that “Secretary Gardner’s association with this partisan commission risks tarnishing his long legacy of fighting for the New Hampshire Primary and promoting voter participation, and it would be in keeping with his distinguished record to immediately relinquish any role with this commission.”

The next day Gardner pushed back, calling the comments from the Senators “hypocritical” and said he would not be stepping down from the commission.

On Monday, Gardner remained steadfast, saying the plans for Tuesday’s meeting have been in place “for almost two months now. So to ask me three or four days before this meeting to step down – it disappoints me that our members of Congress would do something like that.”

Gardner highlighted that “more than half the people in this country believe there’s voter fraud. And poll after poll after poll has shown that.”

“Knowing that that’s the case, even if it’s just perception, it still has an impact on whether a person has the will to make the effort to actually vote. So what do we have to fear from looking at that and find out why people feel this way?” he asked, defending his role on the commission.

“Our election process is very important to democracy,” Gardner warned. “If people start losing trust or their confidence in the process, that’s how democracies go away.”

This isn’t the only time Gardner’s faced criticism from fellow Democrats. Five years ago he supported a voter identification bill that eventually became law.

“The exact same things were said about it then that are being said about the legislation this year,” Gardner said. “And what happened after 2011? We had the highest turnout in the presidential election, even though we had a law that did what some people said would suppress the turnout.”

“The facts will speak for themselves, and I’m glad to talk about the facts. What opinion other people have, that’s their opinion. I’m proud of the New Hampshire process, the turnout here,” he added.

The opinion of Steve Shurtleff, the Democrat leader in the House of Representatives, is that Gardner’s participation on the commission is tarnishing his reputation.

“I think he brings some credibility to that commission because he’s the dean of the secretary of states throughout the country, but I think it hurts him here in New Hampshire,” Shurtleff said.

New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley agreed that Gardner may be doing damage to his legacy.

“He is certainly taking that chance by this continued membership on the commission that Trump put together on voter fraud,” Buckley said. “We would hope that his reputation not be sullied.”

Gardner doesn’t face re-election until January 2019, and he said he hopes to serve another term.

“The next presidential primary will be the 100th anniversary of us being first, and, God willing, I hope that I can be part of that,” he said.

But it’s not a sure thing he’ll win the support of fellow Democrats.

“I would definitely have to look at who would be running against him,” Shurtleff said. “I’ve heard a lot of people from our Democratic caucus, but even some Republicans, that have started to wonder if maybe it’s time the Secretary of State to call it a day and step down.”

Similarly, Senate Democratic leader Jeff Woodburn was noncommittal, saying he’ll decide whether to vote for Gardner when that time comes.

“My respect for Bill Gardner hasn’t changed, but I disagree with him,” Woodburn said.

But Gardner retains the support of at least one key Democratic state lawmaker.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester, known as the dean of the state Senate, said “of course I’ll support him.”

While D’Allesandro said he disagreed with Gardner over the voter registration law and his participation on the commission, that doesn’t wipe away the past.

“I’ve known Bill Gardner since he was 12 years old,” D’Allesandro said. “He’s done a lot of very, very, good things for New Hampshire.”