Bill Gardner defends his role on disbanded Trump voting commission

  • FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017 file photo, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, right, introduces one of the speakers at a meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in Manchester, N.H. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, center, and former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, left, also attend. The information coming out of President Donald Trump’s commission to investigate voter fraud has frustrated not only reporters and senators but now even members of the commission. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer, File) Holly Ramer

For the Monitor
Published: 1/4/2018 5:13:34 PM

One day after President Donald Trump’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity was disbanded, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner defended his role on the controversial panel.

“I didn’t ask anybody to be on that commission but I would do it again if I was asked,” Gardner said in an interview with the Monitor on Thursday.

Gardner was invited to join the commission in May and in September, he hosted the panel’s final meeting, which was held at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

The White House announced early Wednesday evening that the president had terminated the commission and had asked the Department of Homeland Security to look into the issue of voter fraud during the 2016 election. The White House pointed to push back from states in handing over voter information and “endless legal battles at taxpayer expense” from those trying to block the commission’s work.

Gardner said he had no idea that the commission was about to be disbanded and that he didn’t get a heads up regarding the announcement. He was out running errands Wednesday night and found out later than most people. 

Gardner had hoped for a different ending.

“I was hopeful that it would be a fact finding venture, that we would go out there and get the type of information that we felt was needed and try to address why a significant segment of our population feels that they have a lack of confidence in the (voting) process itself,” he said.

For months Gardner has defended his role on the commission despite a chorus of criticism from fellow Granite State Democrats.

“I was willing to be at the table and I was hopeful that it would be a fact finding effort and the facts would end up speaking for themselves,” he said.

 In a statement posted to the Secretary of State’s website, Gardner pointed to a recent poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center on voter fraud perceptions.

“We now know that over half of New Hampshire residents, based on a recent Granite State Poll released less than two months ago, believe that voter fraud is significant and has the potential to affect the outcome of elections in the country. We also know from the very same poll that one-third of Granite Staters believe voter fraud is a serious problem in New Hampshire,” Gardner wrote.

“You should be alarmed” about the poll, Gardner told the Monitor.

“I’m surprised the survey hasn’t been a front page story, but it’s not what some people and the media want to have out there,” he added.

The Monitor ran a front page story in November on the results from the survey. 

“If that significant a number of people believe that, don’t you at least want to know why and how to deal with it,” Gardner asked rehtorically. “You just want to let this fester and fester? And you’re not supposed to serve on a panel or a committee with people that you may not agree with?”

“If everybody did that, where would we end up? I mean this is a diverse and free society. We need to listen and we need to be willing to do that. And do it in an open process. That’s what I was hopeful that we would be willing to do,” Gardner added. “But it got so mired down in all these lawsuits,”

And he lamented the disbanding of the commission. 

“We lost an opportunity, in my opinion, to at least try to get a better understanding of why so many people have a lack of confidence in elections,” Gardner said.

Trump trounced Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in the all-important Electoral College vote, 306 to 232, to win the presidency in the November 2016 election. But he lost the national popular count by nearly three million votes to Clinton.

Soon after his victory, then President-elect Trump claimed "in addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” And he singled out New Hampshire as one of three states with “serious voter fraud.”

Trump lost New Hampshire’s four electoral votes to Clinton by less than 2,800 votes.

Democrats urged the president to abandon the idea of a commission to look into his unsubstantiated voter fraud claims. But Trump decided to press forward with the commission.

In November, the commission was sued by Maine Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, one of the Democratic members of the panel. Dunlap said he was being snubbed from meeting planning and denied access to the commission’s records. A federal judge last month found substance in Dunlap’s suit and ordered that he be given the information needed to take part in the panel’s deliberations.

“I didn’t to see anything that he (Dunlap) didn’t get to see, because there was very little” to see, Gardner said.

“I don’t know that there was any lack of transparency” by commission co-chairman Kris Kobach, the controversial Republican secretary of state of Kansas.

Gardner said he received a notice from the commission Wednesday night instructing him to keep all of the materials given to members of the panel in case they become evidence in on the pending lawsuits.

“I’ve disclosed everything anyway,” Gardner said.

Much of the litigation the panel faces was sparked by Kobach’s request for all states to provide their voter rolls, along with information on criminal convictions and partial Social Security numbers. The White House argued that it was only seeking publicly available records, but the move ignited an angry reaction from some states over how the information would be stored and used.

Gardner said that “everyone (on the commission) agreed that we would not ask any state to provide any information about the elections that was not publicly available in the state.”

And he said that while he agreed to Kobach’s request, “nothing was handed over” to the committee in Washington.

The episode sparked the ACLU in New Hampshire to file a lawsuit to block the state from sharing voter data. The suit claimed the commission was attempting to get people’s private information. The suit was eventually withdrawn.

“It’s disgraceful what the ACLU did to people in this state and hurt people’s confidence,” Gardner charged.

In September, Gardner 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 Kobach said that voter fraud in New Hampshire may have led to Democratic challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan’s extremely narrow victory in the 2016 election over incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

A dispute between Gardner and Kobach at the New Hampshire meeting of the commission dominated headlines.

After Kobach once again questioned the “legitimacy” of the Ayotte-Hassan election results, Gardner fired back that the results were “real and valid.”

The incoming fire directed at Gardner over his role on the commission was nearly unprecedented, as the secretary of state has long been respected by both Democrats and Republicans in New Hampshire for his decades-long battle to protect the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary status. Gardner, who was first elected to his position in 1976 and re-elected by state lawmakers every two years, is the longest serving secretary of state in the nation.

Asked if he’s taken a hit by serving on the commission, Gardner said, “time tells if people were right.”

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