New Hampshire’s longtime Secretary of State William Gardner is no stranger to the national political scene. For decades he’s stepped up when necessary to remind the major parties and other states that New Hampshire law — and the flexibility of being a small state with well-drilled elections officials — gives him the flexibility to move the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary on short notice, keeping it ahead of others.
And he famously signed on to President Trump’s dubious election fraud task force, which — despite having the sole purpose of exposing any evidence of fraud during the 2016 election on Trump’s claims that he should have won the popular vote if not for the millions of illegally cast votes — quietly disbanded after finding no such evidence whatsoever.
Recently, Gardner again made headlines by inserting himself into the debate over H.R. 1, the proposed federal For the People Act. The omnibus elections bill would expand voting rights, change campaign finance, limit gerrymandering and create new ethics rules for federal officeholders. Its supporters cite the array of partisan elections laws being passed by state legislatures — such as Georgia’s recently signed law — as reason for federal action. Detractors, including Gardner, say states ought to have the ability to put their own election laws and processes in place.
Since Gardner is best-known nationally as the guardian of the New Hampshire primary, it made news in a post on his official website criticizing the For the People Act and claiming the bill “could put our presidential primary in a perilous position.”
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, Gardner doubled down on that notion, but offered no actual example of how the law would endanger the primary. Instead, he spent his time talking about how great New Hampshire’s system of elections — in other words, his system, since he’s run the state’s elections since 1976 — is and saying that allowing the federal government to supersede state policies would be a mistake.
Gardner is certainly an expert on the state’s election processes and its laws. His main point, though, which he repeated several times, seemed to be that things are working well here because we have a high turnout each election. That’s a point he’s made before, notably to defend his position that hand auditing machine-tallied ballots shouldn’t be allowed. If you don’t see how one affects the other, well, neither did we. But he’s adamant that as long as New Hampshire has a good voter turnout, everything is working just fine, thank you.
As Gardner put it more than once: “The proof is in the pudding.”
We take that to mean he’s content with the system as long as the results are favorable.
But taking a look at the For the People Act, that does lead to some questions. The act, for example, would take redistricting out of the hands of partisan lawmakers, to reduce the chance of gerrymandering. In the Granite State, the Legislature handles redistricting, and typically, it’s the party in control that draws up — and if necessary forces through — that new voting map.
That’s what occurred after the 2010 census, when Republican leaders met behind closed doors to draw new maps that would protect as many GOP seats as possible. It’s how we came to have Executive Council District 2, which stretches from the Seacoast to Vermont, carefully carving out Democratic strongholds, so as to leave Districts 1 and 3 thoroughly Republican. This past November, that resulted in four of five council seats going to Republicans, while the District 2 seat was never in doubt, going to a Democrat. In fact, the GOP captured 80 percent of the council seats while earning 51.3 percent of the council votes.
If the proof is in the pudding, it seems Gardner ought to be alarmed at those results, if he cares as much about the integrity of the state’s voting system as he does the turnout.
The For the People Act might upset Gardner’s apple cart, but it holds much promise to restore some much-needed faith in our elections and our government. By limiting the effect of money in our elections, setting stricter ethics standards for lawmakers, the president and others, and taking partisanship out of redistricting, it would go a long way toward resolving some of the major issues disillusioned voters — and in many cases, now non-voters — have with the system. And by creating ways to help voters access the polls, rather than allowing states to construct hurdles to some segments of the eligible voting population, it should also increase turnout.
That ought to please Bill Gardner.