MANCHESTER, New Hampshire—Bill Gardner, New Hampshire’s Democratic secretary of state, is an institution in the state, having held the office for more than four decades, and now, for being one of a few Democratic election officials in the country stepping up to prevent voter fraud.
Gardner, one of five Democrats on the 12-member Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, hosted the commission Tuesday—and did so in the midst of controversy in the state. But as the longest-serving secretary of state in the country, elected by the state Legislature every two years since 1976, he has seen his share of national controversies in the state.
Last week, New Hampshire House Speaker Shawn Jasper released a report—based on data from Gardner’s office—that more than 6,500 people registered to vote in New Hampshire on Nov. 8 using out-of-state driver’s licenses. Of those, about 5,500 never subsequently obtained a New Hampshire driver’s license. Under New Hampshire law, new residents have 60 days after moving to the state to update their license.
The Daily Signal previously reported on the number of same-day voter registrants. New Hampshire Public Radio first reported the inconsistencies after a Freedom of Information Act request. But Jasper first highlighted the number of registrants who haven’t updated their licenses.
That’s significant, given two very close elections last November. In a U.S. Senate race, Democrat Maggie Hassan, then the governor, beat Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte by a little more than 1,000 votes.
Meanwhile, Democrat Hillary Clinton won the state’s four electoral votes by beating Donald Trump with a little less than 2,800 votes. Beyond that, the small New England state has 400 members in its House of Representatives—meaning small districts—where only a few votes could conceivably make a difference.
“We did the cross-check program with [other] states and found 196 people with the same first name, last name, and date of birth registered in another state,” Gardner told The Daily Signal in an interview the day before the commission met at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, New Hampshire, near Manchester. “Those 196 are not among the 6,500. But that investigation is ongoing.”
Hassan recently attacked Gardner, her fellow Democrat, for serving on the presidential advisory commission.
“Secretary Gardner’s association with this partisan commission risks tarnishing his long legacy of fighting for the New Hampshire Primary and promoting voter participation, and it would be in keeping with his distinguished record to immediately relinquish any role with this commission,” Hassan said in a statement.
Gardner doesn’t believe voter fraud is rampant in New Hampshire, and isn’t alleging it is elsewhere. His focus is on ensuring integrity, which he’s certain will increase voter participation.
“If a voter doesn’t have confidence in the system, it affects whether that person will vote,” Gardner said.
He noted voter participation was much higher in presidential elections during the 1950s and 1960s, notwithstanding new-voter enfranchisement through civil rights laws and expanding the right to vote to 18-year-olds. Voter participation began to plummet after the 1972 election, he said.
As the chief election official in the state with the first presidential primary (and second overall contest after the Iowa caucuses), Gardner has been in the middle of previous national controversies. He’s known for his strident defense of the state’s status in picking presidents—threatening to move the state’s primary to December if other states sought to go earlier in January than New Hampshire.
Gardner backed a New Hampshire voter ID law that passed in 2011, despite warnings that it would decrease voter turnout. He said New Hampshire’s voter turnout in the following year’s presidential election was 14.2 percentage points higher than the national average, and that in 2016, New Hampshire’s general election turnout was 14.5 percentage points higher than the national average.
By contrast, he said that Oregon has had consistently declining voter participation since adopting its mail-in balloting system in 1995.
“What’s important is a balancing act. We don’t want to create artificial barriers to vote,” Gardner said. “We want it to be reasonably easy. But when we make it easier, we need to balance that with protections against fraud.”
New Hampshire state Rep. Dave Testerman, a Republican, faults Gardner for spending much of his career expanding domicile rules for voting.
“For a long time, he really drank the Democratic Kool-Aid,” Testerman told The Daily Signal. “He has realized just in recent years there is a real need to restore election integrity.”
The rest of the all-Democrat New Hampshire congressional delegation has joined Hassan in calling for Gardner to step down from the commission that Trump appointed.
“I urge New Hampshire Secretary of State Gardner to condemn this most recent claim and end his participation in President Trump’s voter commission,” Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., said, regarding the charge that more than 5,000 ineligible people could have voted.
On Tuesday, an editorial in the New Hampshire Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, defended Gardner.
Let’s see: in matters of New Hampshire elections, should Granite Staters hold in higher regard the experienced, nonpartisan voice of Secretary of State Bill Gardner — or the partisan political hackery of our all-Democrat congressional delegation? …
It is a chance for the nation to see in Bill Gardner a man of quiet courage and competence who knows election law better than anyone and who is serving on this commission not to aid Donald Trump, but to get at the facts.
For his efforts, he is being vilified by a political quartet that would not recognize real bipartisanship if it stumbled over it.
Gardner found himself in the midst of a national controversy just before taking the office of secretary of state. He played a leading role to resolve a contested 1974 election that still stands as the closest U.S. Senate race in American history. The first election was in November, but the outcome wasn’t decided until September 1975.
Gardner was first elected to the New Hampshire House of Representatives in 1972 and re-elected in 1974.
In 1974, Republican Louis Wyman beat Democrat John Durkin by 355 votes in that hotly contested U.S. Senate race. After a recount, Durkin beat Wyman by 10 votes. Wyman asked for another recount, which he won by two votes. The U.S. Senate sought to determine the outcome, before sending it back to the state, which called a special election. Gardner served on the House Election Law Committee that sorted out some of the issues in the election.
“Our committee debated whether to limit the election to these two candidate, or throw it open to others that wanted to run, and whether to let all voters participate or just who were recorded votes,” Gardner recalled.
Ultimately, the legislature decided to have a special election limited to Wyman and Durkin as candidates, but open to all registered voters. With national attention, the election prompted a record turnout in the state, and Durkin won the seat by 27,000 votes in September 1975.
After Secretary of State Bob Stark died of cancer in 1976, Deputy Secretary of State Ed Kelly took the position, but said he wouldn’t put his name before the Legislature to seek the office again.
After some debate, the state House and Senate eventually voted to make Gardner—still in his 20s—the new secretary of state. In New Hampshire, the Legislature makes the appointment and has voted to reappoint him to the job every two years for four decades.
“I was young, and I didn’t have to run against an incumbent, and my colleagues knew I cared a lot about elections and voting issues during my time in the Legislature,” Gardner said.
The name of the New Hampshire House speaker has been corrected.