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Van Ostern trying to unseat Bill Gardner as N.H. Secretary of State

  • Executive Councilor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern speaks during a Hillary Clinton campaign rally at Whittemore Center Arena at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, Nov. 7, 2016, the day before Election Day. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ



Monitor staff
Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Failed gubernatorial candidate and former executive councilor Colin Van Ostern has his eyes on another position at the State House. This time, he’s hoping to unseat New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner, who has been the face of the New Hampshire primary for the past 42 years.

Van Ostern, of Concord, is running with the backing of a Democratic leadership that’s been frustrated by a series of moves by Gardner to tighten the state’s election laws. The candidacy would be the first time Gardner – the nation’s longest-serving secretary of state – has been challenged in at least 14 years.

Over the past year, Democrats have been irked that Gardner, a fellow Democrat, chose to participate in President Donald Trump’s “voter fraud commission,” offering to submit New Hampshire’s voter information on its town checklists to the federal government. And they’ve bristled at the secretary’s support for a pair of bills seen by Democrats as unfairly restricting voting.

In a statement, Van Ostern staked out positions that appeared to touch on those topics.

“We need to protect and strengthen New Hampshire’s free and fair elections so that our government always reflects the will of the people – not those trying to rig the system for their own interests,” Van Ostern said Tuesday.

His platform includes a promise to maintain paper balloting; establish an independent redistricting commission; and resist “political efforts to complicate voter registration or add unnecessary red tape in front of college students, members of the military, and other citizens’ constitutional right to vote,” according to a press release Tuesday.

Both House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff, D-Penacook, and Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn, D-Whitefield, will support Van Ostern, the leaders said Tuesday. A formal announcement is expected Wednesday afternoon in Concord.

Woodburn said he has strong respect for Gardner’s integrity but that he shares a “different philosophical position” when it comes to the structure of New Hampshire’s elections, adding that “it’s time for some new blood and new ideas and new technologies.”

“These are not just relationships – if it were just relationships, I’d be for Bill,” Woodburn said. “It’s the future of democracy.”

It is unclear how much support a challenge to Gardner’s position will command among members of either chamber, who have given Gardner bipartisan support for decades. New Hampshire’s Secretary of State is elected at the start of each legislative session by representatives and senators, not by members of the public.

Shurtleff and Woodburn declined to comment on the likelihood of success for Van Ostern, a staunch Democrat who fell short by more than 16,000 votes in the gubernatorial contest against Gov. Chris Sununu.

But speaking Tuesday evening, Gardner defended his record and confirmed he would seek re-election.

“From the first time I ran, I have never taken a contribution,” he said. “I have never solicited donations; I’ve never been involved politically like that. Because when I ran the first time, I made a commitment that I would not use it as a stepping stone for another political office. I would never do that. And I wasn’t running as if it is a political office.

“Because if you’re going to administer elections, the tradition in this state is that it’s not partisan-based. It’s not, ‘Yes you can comment about election-related legislation,’ but when it comes to the election, everyone has the same opportunity, and everyone’s treated the same, whatever philosophy, what party. And I’ve lived up to that.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)