Longtime Dem SOS Hangs On In NH After Backing Trump Voter Fraud Push

New Hampshire Secretary of State William M. (Bill) Gardner. He is in charge of the department that oversees all general elections, primary elections, voter registration and recounts within the state, including the New Hampshire primary.
Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis News

A powerful fixture in New Hampshire politics has barely hung on for yet another term in office, surviving fury from his own party for supporting President Trump’s notorious voter fraud commission.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (D) held off former gubernatorial Colin Van Ostern (D) by a 209 to 205 vote from the combined state house and senate, narrowly winning a 22nd two-year term after a wild floor fight.

A second round of voting had to be held after Gardner led by 208 to 207 votes in the first round, one vote shy of the 209 needed for a majority (one vote was “scattered,” not for either candidate). Some members disputed whether another vote should have been held at all.

The vote came after Democrats seized back control of the state legislature in last month’s elections. It was the first real challenge to Gardner in decades.

Gardner has held his job for more than 40 years, acting as the chief defender of the state’s first-in-the-nation primaries and winning regular support from both Democrats and Republicans to stay in office. He has been a prominent presence in the state’s fabled primary process, personally greeting politicians of both parties as they came in to register as presidential candidates in his office while fighting off periodic efforts from other states to upend the system and end his state’s primary primacy.

But Democrats have grown increasingly frustrated with Gardner in recent years as he sided repeatedly with Republicans to support voting restrictions including voter ID laws and stubbornly resisted reforms including electronic voting machines, online voting registration and digital modernization of his office. His decision to give bipartisan cover and lend his gravitas to Trump’s national voter fraud commission, led by lightning-rod outgoing Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), was the final straw for many of them — but not quite enough to end his tenure.

Even as they called for new leadership, many of the Democrats in the statehouse nodded to Gardner’s decades of public service and fight to defend New Hampshire’s prominent position in the presidential primary system.

“I know we all feel the weight of history in this vote, and for many of us, the weight of friendship,” said state Sen. David Watters (D) on the statehouse floor. “But it’s time.”

Gardner’s defenders from both parties lamented the potential loss of an institution.

“Bill Gardner chose public service. That’s a plus. Shouldn’t we be holding that as a plus?” said state Sen. Lou D’Alessandro (D) in nominating his old friend.

While Gardner, aged 70, once served in the legislature as a Democrat, in recent years he’s routinely sided with Republicans in battles over elections legislation that would restrict voting in the state. Last year, he backed a GOP bill — seemingly targeted at student voters — that added new requirements to those registering to vote within 30 days of an election. His critics say his opposition to online voter registration and early voting, which he says “cheapens the value” of Election Day, are anachronistic and harmful to the democratic process.

Gardner’s famous flinty stubbornness and traditionalist, romantic views of New Hampshire’s importance in national politics served him well as he took on all comers who dared threaten the state’s first-in-the-nation status. But he has irritated some local officials, especially Democrats, who say he refused to work with others on running the state’s elections and played poorly with others as he insisted his views were the only way in the state.

He nodded to those complaints in his victory speech.

I’d like to ask all of you [members], particularly the new ones. [I’m] just down the hall, come in. I welcome any ideas — even modern ideas,” he said, getting a laugh from the assembled lawmakers.

He has his GOP detractors as well. Rep. John Fothergill (R) criticized Gardner’s heavy-handed interactions with local election officials as he announced he’d vote for Van Ostern.

Democrats’ frustration with Gardner has been burbling for the better part of a decade. But it came to a head when he decided to participate President Trump’s so-called “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity,” a panel convened to investigate his baseless claims that millions of people voted illegally in 2016.

Gardner even hosted one of the commission’s two meetings, before it was dismantled in January, in New Hampshire. Just before that meeting, Kobach reiterated conspiracy theories about people from out-of-state traveling to New Hampshire to vote illegally and cast doubt on the legitimacy of Sen. Maggie Hassan’s (D-NH) narrow 2016 win. Gardner refused to resign the commission but confronted Kobach about the unfounded allegations at the meeting.

But even as younger Democrats turned on him, there was a bipartisan push to keep him in office for at least one more term. Five former governors, including one Democrat, announced support for him, and Terry Shumaker and Steve Duprey, longtime Democratic and Republican national committeemen, penned a recent op-ed endorsing him.

That concerted push was just enough to keep Gardner in office for one more term.

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