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Gardner Says Federal Elections Bill Imperils N.H. Primary; Supporters Say There's No Threat

Secretary of State Bill Gardner
Dan Tuohy / NHPR
N.H. Secretary of State Bill Gardner in February 2020 discussing the New Hampshire presidential primary.

New Hampshire’s top election official says the sweeping voting rights bill backed by Congressional Democrats, including the entire state delegation, could endanger New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner doesn’t cite a specific provision of the 700-page “For The People Act” that he says imperils New Hampshire’s leadoff spot in the presidential primary calendar. But Gardner, who has overseen New Hampshire elections for more than 40 years, is vehemently denouncing the bill, which among other things, enshrines non-excuse absentee voting, online voter registration and vote by mail, as flouting the state constitution and threatening political life in the state.

“The simplicity of our elections will be gone,” Gardner wrote in a statementposted on his office’s website. “All four of the state’s congressional delegation are not supporting provisions of our New Hampshire Constitution. They should answer the question: why?”

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Gardner has for decades worked to beat back any incursion – real or perceived – on the state’s spot in the presidential nominating calendar. A Democrat who is increasingly an ally to Republicans when it comes to election law issues, Gardner derided the proposal at length for having the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- who, he noted, once tried to remove New Hampshire from its prized calendar spot as a Democratic National Cmmittee official in 1983.

“Now, Speaker Pelosi is once again attacking our state by using federal authority through H.R. 1 by rendering articles of our own state constitution null and void,” Gardner said.

Republicans in New Hampshire and Washington oppose the bill, which also aims to limit dark money political spending and partisan gerrymandering, and they are now echoing Gardner’s critique.

“They are there, in Washington, first and foremost to represent the people of New Hampshire, and there is nothing more ‘New Hampshire’ than standing up for the first-in-the-nation primary,” NHGOP chairman Steve Stepanek told WMUR.

The state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation, meanwhile, is defending the substance of the proposal and dismissing Gardner’s alarm.

“What we saw during pandemic voting in New Hampshire was a more flexible process that worked,” Rep. Chris Pappas said on Twitter.  “And despite being told for years by our SOS (Secretary of State) that mail-in voting would somehow cheapen Election Day, we had a record turnout.”

“I was proud to support this legislation,” Rep. Annie Kuster said. “Elected officials everywhere should be working to make it easier for Americans to exercise their right to vote, not harder."

It remains to be seen if the effort to sink the bill by raising the specter of losing the primary will have any effect.

Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan are both co-sponsors of their chamber’s version of the bill, but given Republicans opposition, mustering the 60 votes needed to get the bill to the Senate floor isn’t likely. Both senators say they still support it.

“I am committed to strengthening our democratic processes, and the For the People Act is an important vehicle to limit the influence of special interests in politics and bolster widely-supported voting protections,” Shaheen told the Associated Press

“Corporate special interests can spend limitless sums to influence our politics without even basic transparency,” Hassan said in a statement. “The For the People Act takes long overdue steps to root out dark money in politics, take on corruption, and ensure that the government works on behalf of Granite Staters, not corporate special interests.”

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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