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N.H. Secretary of State Testifies Against Federal Elections Bill

Secretary of State Bill Gardner
Senate screen capture

New Hampshire’s top election official paid a visit – remotely – to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to testify against a sweeping Democratic election law bill backed by the state’s entire congressional delegation.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner told senatorsthe bill, which among other things would mandate no-excuse absentee voting, online voter registration and vote by mail, encroaches on what should be states’ prerogatives to administer their own elections according to law and tradition.

“It will damage voter confidence, will diminish the importance of Election Day itself, and ultimately result in lower voter turnout,” Gardner told the committee.

Stacey Abrams

Gardner is a Democrat who often agrees with Republicans when it comes to matters of election law. He was invited to testify by Republicans. Democrats invited several Black voting rights advocates, including Georgia-based activist Stacey Abrams, and Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“Make no mistake, there is a deliberate effort to suppress the vote of people of color,” Committee Chairman Dick Durbin said at the top of the hearing.

From the outset, Republican senators chafed at how Democrats billed the discussion, as “Jim Crow 2021: The Latest Assault on the Right to Vote.”

“It looks like today’s hearing is just a form of performance art to enhance a false narrative," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas.

"I look forward to hearing from Secretary of State Bill Gardner,” ranking Republican Charles Grassley said.

When it was Gardner’s turn to speak, his longevity in office was praised by several Republicans. “A legend in your part of the world, and rightly so,” South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham said.

"We have an election day that is a day for everything in New Hampshire. It goes all the way back to the beginning."

“If anyone has been there and done that when it comes to election laws, it is Bill Gardner,” said Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton.

Gardner has served as New Hampshire’s Secretary of State since 1976. As he tends to when discussing New Hampshire’s elections laws – which don’t permit early voting, no-excuse absentee voting or online registration – he cited statistics that show New Hampshire has one of the nation’s highest rates of voter participation during presidential elections. He supplied the committee with a chart detailing state rates of voter participation that he invoked repeatedly.

“Just because you make voting easier does not raise turnout automatically,” Gardner said.

New Hampshire’s lack of no-excuse absentee voting came up repeatedly. Republicans, including Georgia House Speaker Pro-Tem, Jan Jones, who also testified, noted that New Hampshire is among several northeastern states that don’t permit it.

“The shame is theirs to bear, not Georgia’s,” Jones said.

It was an effort to defend Georgia’s new voting laws, which Jones maintains will boost voter access but which many Democrats allege contain provisions intended to suppress Black voter turnout.

Stacey Abrams, meanwhile, told senators that states that don’t allow no-excuse absentee voting have election laws that are “behind the times.”

But Gardner insisted that New Hampshire’s approach has stood the test of time.

“We have an election day that is a day for everything in New Hampshire. It goes all the way back to the beginning,” Gardner said.

In several hours of testimony, the discussion only briefly touched on the effect the Democratic proposal could have on the presidential nominating calendar. Gardner has argued, without citing anything specific, that passing it could put New Hampshire’s place at the front of the presidential nominating calendar at risk.

“It would not specifically have an effect,” Gardner said after a long pause, when questioned by Iowa Senator Charles Grassley.

“However, I’ve made the statement that it could put the New Hampshire primary in a perilous position, and I stand by that,” Gardner said.

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Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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