New bill could broaden the powers of the N.H. Secretary of State’s office

Monitor staff
Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office has requested a bill that, if passed, would significantly broaden the scope of its powers.

Senate Bill 47 would give the secretary of state’s office the authority to conduct investigations into violations of election law, enforce the rules and impose penalties. This power is currently held by the New Hampshire attorney general’s election law division.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner said his office had requested the bill after the attorney general’s office said its election division did not have enough staff to process complaints of voter fraud. Currently, the office is staffed by one attorney who works on election issues part-time. The office recently requested another full-time attorney to help relieve a backlog of election law complaints.

Gardner told senators there are constraints with the current process because the attorney general’s office has to treat election law investigations as criminal cases.

“When you have the criminal side you have to deal with, you just can’t act as quickly,” he said. “I think that’s part of the frustration.”

However, the bill as currently written would give the secretary of state’s office a much broader scope of authority than just investigating voter fraud – allowing it to conduct investigations into violations of a wide variety of election laws.

Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice said the bill’s breadth concerned her.

“If we’re talking about criminal prosecutions ... those should be done in a prosecutor’s office,” Rice said. “Those shouldn’t be done in an administrative agency.”

Derry Town Moderator Mary Till echoed that concern, saying she was concerned the bill could have negative outcomes for local election officials.

“In essence, the secretary of state’s office is serving as complainant, prosecutor and judge,” Till said.

Gardner said he was open to the bill’s language being changed to limit the scope of power it could bestow on his office.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter