Gardner to remain on voter fraud panel despite new claims

  • Flanked by Cyrus Gregg (left) and former New Hampshire State representative Jim Splaine, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner shows the Republican and Democratic presidential primary ballots in 2015. AP file

  • Secretary of State Bill Gardner talks about the history of the New Hampshire Primary during a celebration of the event’s 100th anniversary at the State House on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015. ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Friday, September 08, 2017

Amid uproar over a fresh charge of voter fraud in New Hampshire – this time from the vice chairman of a commission meant to examine voter integrity – Bill Gardner made his decision clear. The New Hampshire secretary of state said repeatedly Friday that he would continue to serve his role ahead of a Tuesday meeting at St. Anselm College in Manchester.

But on the fraud charge itself, Gardner took a more equivocal route. On Thursday, Vice Chair Kris Kobach alleged newly released figures on out-of-state driver’s licenses used in New Hampshire’s 2016 election offered proof of voter fraud, going as far as to say that the fraud “likely” impacted the result of the U.S. Senate election.

On Friday, Gardner pushed back, saying that the figures – which revealed that 5,313 people who registered on election day with an out-of-state license had not secured a license or registered their car in New Hampshire by this Aug. 31 – did not support Kobach’s charge.

But he also said the numbers didn’t negate the existence of potential fraud, either.

“People are saying there there’s no fraud, and the others are saying there’s a lot of fraud,” he said. “And there might be no fraud, there might be a lot of fraud. But there’s no proof!

“I’m just trying to get the facts and everything’s turning into all this other stuff.”

The fraud allegation, made by Kobach in a post to the conservative news website Breitbart, relied on the new figures to make the claim that those who had registered with out-of-state license were not New Hampshire residents and therefore voted illegally. Because more than 5,000 of them had not obtained licenses 10 months after the election, Kobach wrote, the total could have made the difference in the Senate race between Democrat Maggie Hassan and Republican Kelly Ayotte, which Hassan won by 1,017 votes.

Legal analysts were quick to label the interpretation of the figures misleading. New Hampshire law presently does not require residency for same-day registration, but rather requires that the voter is domiciled, a lower standard. Under that definition, those from other states living temporarily in New Hampshire – including college students and military recruiters – are eligible to vote despite not carrying a New Hampshire license.

The distinction was upheld in a 2015 New Hampshire supreme court case, Guare v. New Hampshire, Gilles Bissonnette, Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, pointed out in a statement. That case upheld the right of three out-of-state students at the University of New Hampshire to vote in the state despite not carrying state licenses.

In a web post, Jonathan Brater, counsel for the Democracy Program of the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice agreed, arguing that failing to register a vehicle within 60 days of moving to New Hampshire does not impinge on the right to vote with the prior license.

Ben Vihstadt, spokesman for Gov. Chris Sununu, also took issue with Kobach’s assertions.

“Kris Kobach’s conclusions are based on a misunderstanding of New Hampshire law,” Vihstadt said. “That being said, if there are any legitimate cases of voter fraud within the figures and data released by Secretary Gardner, we are confident the Attorney General’s Office will fully investigate the matter.”

On Friday, the Secretary of State’s office released further figures that indicated that high concentrations of those voting with out-of-state licenses cast votes in college towns. Of the 6,540 total votes, 397 were cast in Plymouth; 781 in Keene; 836 in Hanover; and 1,613 in Durham, the figures showed.

But while experts pushed back against Kobach’s claims, the figures, released at the request of House Speaker Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, reignited a longstanding debate over the effectiveness of New Hampshire’s voting laws. In July, Sununu signed into law Senate Bill 3, which would increase verification requirements for those claiming to be domiciled in the state when registering to vote.

The N.H. Democratic Party and the League of Women Voters have challenged that bill in Hillsborough County Superior Court, charging that it creates unlawful burdens on voters. A preliminary hearing on the case is scheduled for Monday.

Some Republicans said the out-of-state license figures highlighted the importance of oversight into the voting process.

“This certainly provides us with some very interesting and, in some cases, troubling information,” Jasper said. “There can be no conclusions drawn regarding the driver’s licenses, other than for whatever reason, those people didn’t stay in the state or didn’t comply with the law or never were actually residents of the state.”

Democrats, meanwhile, accused Kobach of spreading misinformation designed to encourage voter suppression laws, and castigated Gardner’s role on a commission they said is designed to produce a specific conclusion. Members of New Hampshire’s all-Democratic congressional delegation – who were invited by Gardner to attend the Sept. 12 commission meeting – sent out statements demanding that Gardner, a Democrat, step down from the group.

But to Gardner, who called the lawmakers “hypocritical” for serving on their own bipartisan legislative committees while demanding he step down from his commission, argued that to walk away due to disagreement would be to miss the point of the group.

“How are you ever going to get to the facts if you are not willing to do it in a collaborative way?” he said. “Let’s get to the facts. That’s how you resolve (it) – if you can get there.”