Secretary of State Bill Gardner says he was "surprised" and disappointed to find out that the presidential advisory commission he was tapped to serve on last May had been abruptly dissolved. While the announcement was made Wednesday night, Gardner said he didn’t learn of the news until Thursday morning.
“I was hopeful at the beginning that this would be a fact-finding project,” Gardner told NHPR on Thursday afternoon, “that we would gather all the information we could and try to produce something as a result of it that would help us to better understand why so many people in this country feel the way they do, their confidence level about the elections.” (Gardner also released a written statement reacting to the commission's dissolution, which you can read here.)
Instead, the commission’s “fact finding” efforts didn’t make it very far. It met only twice and spent much of its existence mired in legal battles — including one from one of its own members alleging a lack of transparency. It also faced bipartisan condemnation over its request that states turn over information from their voter rolls for examination.
Gardner’s willingness to share New Hampshire voter information with the commission brought hundreds of calls to his office and a lawsuit at the local level. To this day, Gardner said New Hampshire had not yet transferred any of that data to the commission before it was dissolved — though he remains adamant that he was well within his authority to treat the commission’s request for such data as he would any other public records request.
Had Gardner transferred the data to the commission, he said he would have held a press conference to announce that it was happening and to dispute how the legal battle over the release of the data has been characterized.
“I wanted to talk about the lawsuit and the spin that was put on the lawsuit, that there was some kind of a settlement, which was just absolutely untrue,” Gardner said.
Gardner’s sheer involvement on the commission — which was formed following President Trump’s unfounded allegations that millions of illegal votes were cast in last year’s election and led by an official who alleged thousands of illegal votes swayed the outcome of New Hampshire’s Senate race — also drew an unprecedented level of public pushback for someone who had long maintained a sterling reputation across party lines. The secretary said he understood why people disagreed with his decision to participate in the commission, but he regrets the debate over this and other election issues has turned so caustic.
“I don’t like the fact that there’s such an edge to all of this,” Gardner said. “I’ve never been one that wanted to just refuse to listen to people. That’s not the way I am. I’m not going to just shut myself off to people who have different ideas or different points of view. It doesn’t matter how strong the disagreement is — take the time to listen.”
Even as the commission closes up shop, Gardner remains adamant about the need to address dwindling confidence in both local and national elections — citing the results of a recent Granite State Poll as evidence of disintegrating public trust in the electoral process.
“That’s how democracies die,” Gardner said, “when people don’t have confidence in the elections.”
Gardner said the poll showed “over half of New Hampshire residents … believe that voter fraud is significant and has the potential to affect the outcome of elections in the country,” and that “one-third of Granite Staters believe voter fraud is a serious problem in New Hampshire.” But the actual results were more nuanced.
Of the poll's 956 respondents, the poll found 24 percent thought voter fraud across the U.S. was a "very serious" problem, 29 percent said it was "somewhat serious," 19 percent "not too serious," and 22 percent "not at all serious." In the same poll, 33 percent said voter fraud was either a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem in New Hampshire, while 58 percent said it was “not too serious” or “not at all serious” here.
Asked if he plans to balance this emphasis on perception of the severity of voter fraud with evidence on how often it exists, Gardner said to stay tuned. The legislature gave him greater authority last year to work alongside the attorney general’s office on voter investigations, and he expects to release some findings in the months ahead.
“We’re going to get there, and I feel a strong obligation to do that,” Gardner said. “It’s important not to let this just fester, and let the facts speak for themselves."
The Trump administration says the commission's work will be handed off to the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees cybersecurity issues around elections and has designated voting systems as part of the country's "critical infrastructure."
Gardner says he's wary of the idea of giving a federal agency too much authority in this sphere. New Hampshire, he says, rejected DHS offers to conduct "cyber hygiene" on the state's election systems -- a service the agency has offered as a way to safeguard against the kind of outside hacking threats that loomed over the 2016 elections.
"I’m very reluctant to have federal agencies start creeping into the voting process," Gardner said. "We have a federal system, and part of the strength of that is that states conduct the elections."
Gardner said New Hampshire was not among 21 states reportedly targeted by Russian hackers in the 2016 elections – a fact he attributes to the state's decision not to allow Manchester to pilot a digital voter check-in process, because that would have been more vulnerable to hackers. (Other parts of the state's election infrastructure, including a statewide website for local election officials used to maintain up-to-date information on every registered voter in the state, already exist online.)
"We denied the homeland security department to come in because we knew we were going to have the election, we knew we would be able to have an election and we did what was necessary to make sure that whatever happened, we would be able to make it happen," Gardner said.