For four decades, New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (D) has earned bipartisan reverence for keeping his state’s primaries first in the nation. So why is he spending that hard-earned capital giving bipartisan cover to President Trump’s controversial voter fraud panel?
Trump created the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity after claiming that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 — an assertion that’s been knocked down by numerous state elections officials, including Gardner.
The commission’s acting head, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), is known for making overblown claims of widespread voting fraud and pushing restrictive voting laws. Other members of the commission have similar reputations. Civil rights groups fear its work will be used not only to justify Trump’s baseless allegations but as a pretext to advocate for restrictive laws like nationwide voter ID and state laws purging voter rolls.
Gardner, the nation’s longest-serving secretary of state, is by far the most prominent Democrat on the commission. On Sept. 12 he will host its second meeting, in New Hampshire. Those moves have frustrated Democrats and even some Republicans back home.
“I personally wish that he had declined to be involved,” Fergus Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party and a frequent Trump critic, told TPM. “It gives this farce a sense of legitimacy.”
Having served as New Hampshire’s top election official since 1976, Gardner has a legendary reputation both within and outside the Granite State for his devotion to keeping its primary first on the calendar.
He has overseen 1o of the 17 primaries the state has held since it became a key part of presidential politics after World War II, using his trademark bulldog stubbornness, deep knowledge of party processes and bipartisan connections to elbow back any state trying to cut the line.
His longevity is also due to no one really viewing him as a Democrat anymore. New Hampshire’s secretary of state is chosen by its legislature, and the former Democratic state legislator has been confirmed time and again by acclamation, most of the time by a Republican-controlled statehouse, by assiduously avoiding any overt partisanship.
“He has been apolitical for decades, as long as I’ve been in the legislature. He is a true civil servant,” New Hampshire state Rep. Neal Kurk (R), who has known Gardner for 30 years, told TPM.
“Frankly I think Billy would be just as happy to not have [political] parties, except you have to have parties to have our primaries,” former New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Kathy Sullivan, who has known Gardner since he was in high school with her older sister, said with a laugh.
Gardner has said he joined the Trump commission to prove whether or not there’s widespread voter fraud — something he’s much more skeptical of than others on the commission.
But many argue that his mere presence fuels the insanity he’s trying to knock down, giving Trump and Kobach bipartisan cover.
“Bill says because people believe this we need to look at it to dispel this myth. No, it will do nothing to dispel the myth. The fact that you’re giving it enough credibility to say you’re looking into it confirms to those people that there were shenanigans,” said Cullen, lamenting that many of his fellow Republicans — from Trump to Gov. Chris Sununu (R) — have claimed with no evidence that busloads of Massachusetts Democrats come up every election to illegally vote in New Hampshire’s primaries. Former Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA) even blamed that for his 2014 Senate loss in New Hampshire.
League of Women Voters of New Hampshire president Liz Tentarelli called Gardner after he was named to the commission to raise her concerns — one of many calls she says he personally fielded over that weekend to explain his reasoning to constituents upset with his decision.
“I think he was placed on the commission because he is at least nominally a Democrat and they wanted to be able to say that it’s a bipartisan commission,” Tenteralli told TPM. “I’m not sure they’re going to listen to Mr. Gardner.”
Gardner has long viewed his avoidance of party politics as crucial to the duties of serving as the state’s top elections official.
“How can I be ruling on a recount on the one hand after having taken donations or been involved in a campaign on the other?” he told the Associated Press back in 2000.
A student of history who will talk your ear off about the state — “If you ask him a question you have to be ready for a 15-20 minute answer, he goes way back in history,” said Kurk — Gardner holds traditionalist, almost romantic views of voting that reflect the high opinions New Hampshire holds of its political traditions. That has led to positions some view as anachronistic.
He’s been a fierce opponent of electronic voting machines, has said early voting “cheapens the value” of Election Day and has fought to keep college students who have moved in from elsewhere from voting in the state.
Gardner’s own nostalgic comments during the voting fraud commission’s first event earlier this summer hint at those views.
“These voting machines that are 10 or 12 years old are now antiquated. Well, I can bring you to a polling place in my state that has a voting machine that was patented in 1890 and they are still using that voting machine,” he said.
But those stances have been met with increasing resistance in the last decade.
“This kind of trend to make voting more challenging is really not the right trend, we should be going in the opposite direction,” said ACLU-NH legal director Gilles Bissonnette, who has been involved in multiple lawsuits against Gardner.
Gardner backed a GOP push this year to pass a bill requiring those registering within 30 days of an election to provide proof they reside permanently in the state or sign an affidavit and provide the documentation within 10 days after the election, with a potential penalty of $5,000.
The law now faces separate legal challenges brought by New Hampshire Democrats and by the League of Women Voters.
Another 2012 law he supported — which added convoluted language to voter registration forms ostensibly related to New Hampshire’s domicile laws — was ruled unconstitutional by the state supreme court “for being confusing and inaccurate,” and possibly causing “an otherwise qualified voter not to register to vote in New Hampshire.”
Underlying these policy stances is Gardner’s stubborn view that making voting easier depresses turnout rather than increasing it.
“The equation has been upside down on the seesaw: all about ease,” Gardner said at the first commission meeting.
Gardner did not return repeated requests left with his office by TPM for an interview.
The ACLU’s latest lawsuit was to stop Gardner from handing over state voter registration data that included Social Security numbers and home addresses to Trump’s commission, a move a bipartisan group of lawmakers including Kurk also opposed. The lawsuits resulted in a settlement, with Gardner handing over a version of the registration data with more privacy protection that is not easily searchable.
His involvement in Trump’s voting fraud commission has been the final straw for some Democrats.
“There has been a group within the Democratic Party in New Hampshire that has for years wanted Gardner gone because of his poor record on voting rights, but attacking him was politically dangerous,” said one Democrat who’s worked extensively in New Hampshire. “This isn’t the first time Gardner has been sued or sided with Republicans, but it is the most polarizing stance he has taken that I can think of.”
And for for the first time in decades, Gardner could face a threat to his job — ironically from within his own party who think he’s gone too far in proving he’s not one of them.
“I think we should be considering how he treats all of our citizens, whether or not he’s being fair and nonpartisan,” said New Hampshire state Rep. Sharon Nordgren (D), who has been involved in lawsuits against Gardner.
“I think he’s changed over the years,” she said. “There’s a lot more frustration now.”
Correction: Nordgren is in the House, not Senate.