Trump Commission's Meeting Puts N.H.'s Top Election Official In The Spotlight

Sep 13, 2017

The Trump administration’s election commission met in New Hampshire on Tuesday, putting a national spotlight on the state’s election processes. Also in the spotlight was the man who’s been in charge of New Hampshire elections for the last four decades.

When John King, of Concord, showed up to protest President Trump’s election commission’s meeting St. Anselm College yesterday, his homemade sign didn’t mention the president —who set up the commission after floating conspiracy theories about voter fraud in last year’s elections.

Instead, King called out New Hampshire’s top election official – by name.

"Shame on you, Bill Gardner,” King said, repeating the words on his poster. “He’s our Secretary of State, at least that’s what I’m led to believe, and he should not be involved in this charade to suppress voting. It’s all part of a big scheme.”

King wasn’t the only one weary of Gardner’s role on the panel. Peter Burling, a former Democratic state senator, also showed up to protest Tuesday’s meeting. Burling, who says he’s “worked with and occasionally against Bill Gardner for 35 years,” was scratching his head over the secretary’s motives.

“I think Bill — either through an excess of naiveté or ambition, I don’t know which it was — decided to sign up for something that is frankly an attack on New Hampshire’s traditions of voting,” Burling said. “Why give support to the utterly fake notion that there is, quote, ‘voter fraud’ in New Hampshire’s systems?”

Such concerns weren’t just coming from disgruntled party activists – last week, all four members of the state’s congressional delegation called for Gardner to resign from the Trump panel.

Former Democratic legislator and longtime activist Betty Hall (left) greeted Gardner warmly at Tuesday’s meeting. The two sat next to each other years ago in the New Hampshire House. “He handles it well,” Hall said of Gardner’s ability to weather controversies throughout the last few decades.
Credit Casey McDermott, NHPR

This recent public outcry has been especially jarring, given Gardner’s reputation.

He’s the longest serving Secretary of State in the nation and has never faced a serious challenge to his job. Until this year, he’s earned bipartisan applause for his role overseeing state elections and preserving New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

His decision to join Trump’s voter fraud panel has prompted larger questions about his legacy. Tuesday’s meeting was Gardner’s chance to publicly address these recent critiques head-on — and he wasted no time doing so.

“New Hampshire people aren’t accustomed to walking away or stepping down from their civic duties,” Gardner said in his opening remarks, “and I will not, either.”

But Gardner didn’t just use this national platform to push back on those protesting outside the meeting room.

At one point, he also turned to the man sitting next to him: the  voting commission’s vice chairman and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who just last week questioned whether out-of-state voters illegitimately swayed New Hampshire’s elections in Democrats’ favor.

“The problem that has occurred because of what you wrote is that the question of whether our election, as we have recorded it, is real and valid,” Gardner said. “And it is real and valid.”

That last line drew cheers from some inside the room who were hoping to hear Gardner refute unfounded claims  

For the most part, Gardner’s not one to weigh in on partisan affairs, though he’s been a Democrat his whole career. These days, however, his defenders are largely on the Republican side.

Earlier this week, a group of Republican lawmakers issued a joint press release offering blanket affirmations of support for Gardner.

One of those lawmakers, State Sen. Regina Birdsell, said the senators wanted to respond to recent “vilification” of Gardner over his role on the Trump commission.

“He’s been in place for 40 years, he’s protected our first in the nation, and all of the sudden he’s not looking out for us? That’s ridiculous,” Birdsell said.

Democratic Senator Donna Soucy says that defense misses the mark on why people are questioning Gardner’s role in the panel.

The concern, she says, is that “Bill is a person of such integrity and has done such a good job in running our elections that he shouldn’t be associated with people making such baseless accusations and statements that aren’t based on actual facts.”

And what does Gardner make of being caught in the middle of these competing choruses? If nothing else, four decades of local battles over ballot law have prepared him for this moment.

”The angels aren’t always on one side or the other side, and I’m not saying I’m always on the angels’ side,” Gardner said. “But you learn over time, and it’s good and it’s bad having longevity.”

“The good part is, you can go back and point to what you did five, ten, twenty years ago and get a perspective of whether you were right or not – and sometimes it’s a humbling experience,” Gardner added. “And sometimes, some of the things you appreciate more and more and more over time.”

Whether working with this commission will prove to be a wise choice in the long run? The votes have yet to be tallied.