Capital Beat: After razor’s edge victory, what’s next for the office of secretary of state?

  • Colin Van Ostern shakes Secretary of State Bill Gardner’s hand after the second round of voting had Gardner coming out on top on Wednesday, Decmebr 5, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Secretary of State Bill Gardner comes out of his office after learning that he had finally won the second vote at the State House on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 12/8/2018 8:30:34 PM

When Bill Gardner walked onto the House floor to accept his re-election as secretary of state, his challenger Colin Van Ostern, surrounded by cameras, stood in the gallery and applauded.

Down on the floor, Gardner gave a nod to the wave of reforms at the center of Van Ostern’s campaign: He was open to all ideas, he told legislators, “even modern ones.”

But as the dust settles on a race that came the closest to threatening Gardner’s position in 42 years, it’s unclear if anything will change. If it was meant as a jolt to the system, Van Ostern’s near victorious campaign may be falling on less-than-receptive ears.

“Was the close vote a wake up call?” a reporter asked Gardner during a packed huddle in the hallway Wednesday. “To maybe do some things differently?”

Gardner declined to entertain the question.

“I campaigned for a very short period of time,” he said. “I don’t think this would have been the same if I had campaigned anywhere near where he did.”

There’s a reason for that hesitance. Gardner’s office takes issue with many of Van Ostern’s key charges.

In interviews and speeches before and after Wednesday, Gardner and his staff members have downplayed any problems as overblown, and the solutions as either unnecessary or already accomplished.

At the heart of the disagreement is a decade-old audit.

For months, Van Ostern has railed against a 2007 audit carried out by the state’s legislative budget assistant to scrutinize the office’s financial processes. The findings were severe: 19 significant deficiencies were identified, along with 11 material weaknesses. They ran the gamut, from misdirected funds to improper oversight to technological vulnerabilities.

For instance: 26 out of 50 expenditures reviewed by auditors “did not display evidence of having been reviewed and approved prior to payment” by the office, according to the LBA, which recommended an overhaul of its oversight process.

Meanwhile, in 2006 and 2007, the department put $157,000 of revenue back into the general fund, when it should have been put to other funds.

The 2007 audit also criticized progress the office had made meeting the recommendations of an earlier audit from 1996.

Van Ostern made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign, urging the office to request a follow-up audit to check for progress 11 years after the last one.

Gardner and his office have bristled at that suggestion. To start, audits are not generally requested by departments, they point out; they originate from requests of the legislative budget assistant made by the joint House and Senate Fiscal Committee.

And many of the findings of the LBA’s 2007 review were strongly contested at the time, Deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan said in an interview Thursday. An example: In response to the state auditor’s suggestion that oversight be imposed over expenditures, the office said it was doing what it could.

“While we believe that controls can be improved over the expenditure process, we also believe that we have struck a balance between maintaining a minimal staff and proper expenditure controls,” the office wrote in response in 2007.

The office has made major changes since the audit, even if they disagreed with its findings, according to Scanlan. More positions have been created to ensure that no staffer has undue influence over the movement of funds within the office, Scanlan said. And in 2010 the state implemented a new transparency system, Transparent NH, allowing citizens to track agency expenditures more closely, he pointed out.

But if people want to follow up on the office’s progress over specific areas, they should just ask, Scanlan said. Doing otherwise is political posturing, he argued.

“Colin never called us to ask about any of the provisions in that audit,” he said. “It was strictly for political purposes that he was taking the worst that was written and just throwing it out there.”

In other words, no immediate steps toward another audit appear forthcoming. But what about the Van Ostern camp’s other criticisms?

His supporters lambasted Gardner for testifying in support of Senate Bill 3 – a bill boosting the amount of proof new voters are required to show at the polls – as it wound through the superior courts this year. Scanlan said that defending that law from the lawsuit waged is common practice for the office and would be done for bills Democrats support, too.

Van Ostern pointed to a major mishap last year when the office wrongfully told town officials to strike voters from the rolls who had been identified as potential duplicates through the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program. Scanlan said that mistake had been quickly addressed and new protocols had been put in place to prevent its reoccurrence.

And Van Ostern raised strong concerns about 146 absentee ballots that had been sent out to voters with wrong information this year – in one case including a candidate who had actually lost his primary and leaving off another who had won it. Scanlan said again that the problem had been handled as soon as it was reported, and argued that that reporting was how the system was designed to work.

Instead of sweeping reform, Gardner promised stability. A vote for Gardner was a vote for the continuation of a system that had ushered in high turnout and kept New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, he said.

But their votes now cast, even some of Gardner’s supporters are hopeful he’ll heed some of the concerns.

“I have the strong sense that some of the concerns that have been raised he’s taken to heart because he wants to do a good job,” said Rep. Mark Pearson, R-Hampstead. “I just think that he’s going to continue to do a good job and perhaps even better because of the things that were raised.”

Other Gardner voters are satisfied with the present system. “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” said Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, explaining his vote for Gardner.

For his part, Van Ostern urged his allies to keep pressing the issues. And there are, of course, other election law items moving forward independent of the secretary of state’s office; Democrats have put forward bills to undo two Republican voting bills passed last year and a separate bill to create an independent redistricting commission ahead of the 2020 Census.

“I told Secretary Gardner after the vote that it was a privilege to run against him,” Van Ostern wrote in a letter to his supporters Thursday. But, he added he was “worried about the health of our American democracy,” telling supporters to “keep this spotlight shining brightly.”

What that actually looks like will come down to the legislators.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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