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Lawmakers to decide secretary of state race by secret ballot



For the Monitor
Tuesday, December 04, 2018

It all comes down to a secret ballot.

After nine months in the making, state lawmakers will decide Wednesday whether longtime incumbent Bill Gardner or challenger Colin Van Ostern will serve the next two years as New Hampshire’s secretary of state. No record will be kept how each elected official voted since the decision will be made on nondescript paper ballots.

The race between Gardner, known across the country as one of the chief guardians of New Hampshire’s treasured century-old status as host of the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, and Van Ostern, a former executive councilor and 2016 Democratic gubernatorial nominee who’s running to modernize the office, has dominated headlines in the state and also grabbed national attention.

“It’s enormous. It’s enormous,” said longtime Democratic state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, who’s backing Gardner, as he described the significance of the vote.

The secret ballot for secretary of state election will be unchartered waters for many in the State House, since the last time Gardner was seriously challenged was in 1984, by then New Hampshire GOP chairwoman and state Rep. Donna Sytek.

The winner needs a simple majority of votes cast by the joint convention of the state House and Senate. If all 424 re-elected and newly-elected state representatives and senators attend Wednesday’s Organization Day, when members of both chambers of the General Court are sworn in, the winning candidate would need 213 votes.

When it comes time to vote for secretary of state, lawmakers will each be handed a secret ballot.

“The ballot is a standard ballot we always produce,” explained House of Representatives clerk Paul Smith. It will have both of the names of the candidates and check boxes next to it, and you can mark it in any manner that you see fit.”

Smith said four ballot stations will be located across the chamber where lawmakers can cast their ballots. Lawmakers designated as “tellers” will do the counting of the ballots. Smith said that those tellers will be chosen by the two candidates.

Rarely is a vote disputed.

“We’ve never really had an example where a ballot was contested, because most of our members know how to fill out a ballot,” Smith said.

Typically, the speaker of the House will not vote, and in the event of a tie, the speaker will cast the tiebreaker. Concord Rep. Steve Shurtleff, a Van Ostern supporter, is expected to be elected speaker.

Smith said he and his staff will be monitoring the vote.

“My staff will be there watching and observing to see what’s going on,” Smith said. “They’re the ones who are reporting to me the numbers. I will tally the numbers from either side and hand them to the speaker to read.”

Neither Gardner nor Van Ostern will be allowed to address lawmakers prior to the vote.

“They are nominated by members of the joint convention. Because they are not members themselves of the joint convention, they don’t get afforded floor privileges,” Smith said.

D’Allesandro is expected to nominate Gardner, as he’s done in years past. Van Ostern will be introduced by Rep. Mary Heath, a Manchester Democrat.

Once the election results are announced, the winner will be allowed to address the joint convention.

New Hampshire’s one of just a handful of states where the secretary of state is elected by the Legislature.

Smith said the secret ballot is tradition.

“It’s the custom, usage and practice of the Legislature, especially in joint convention, to use the secret ballot,” he said.

D’Allesandro highlighted that voting by secret ballot “makes a tremendous difference. Talk to Bill O’Brien about it. He’ll tell you it makes a tremendous difference.”

He was referring to the December 2014 secret ballot vote for House speaker, when the favorite in the race, former speaker Bill O’Brien, was upset by Rep. Shawn Jasper.