When the New Hampshire Legislature meets for Organization Day Wednesday, it will select the Secretary of State. Bill Gardner, who's held the position for the last 44 years, is likely to sail smoothly into re-election for a 23rd term.
Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with NHPR's Casey McDermott, who covers elections and voting, about what's changed since Gardner was last up for the role and what he may be facing in the coming legislative session.
NHPR invited Secretary of State Gardner on Morning Edition for an interview, an invitation that the newsroom has extended to his office multiple times in the past year, but we were told he is unavailable.
(Below is a lightly edited transcript of this interview.)
Rick Ganley: So this year's Secretary of State race isn't really much of a race at all, is it?
Casey McDermott: That's right. And it's a stark contrast to 2018 when Gardner faced his toughest challenge to date from former Democratic candidate for governor Colin Van Ostern. That election turned into something of a referendum, or attempted referendum, on Gardner's recent record. Van Ostern and other critics pointed to Gardner's decision to accept a spot on President Trump's now-defunct voter fraud commission, his reluctance to adopt new voting reforms as quickly as many of his fellow Democrats would like him to, and his tendency to align more often with members of the Republican Party at the State House on policies like voter I.D. or residency requirements. But in the end, Gardner eked out a narrow victory after several rounds of voting.
Casey McDermott: Indeed.
Rick Ganley: So how have the last two years gone after that last contentious Secretary of State election?
Casey McDermott: I think like a lot of things, you kind of have to divide this into the pre-COVID and post-COVID times, because elections really got kind of turned upside down by the pandemic.
Rick Ganley: Yeah, like everything it seems like these days. So let's talk pre-COVID.
Casey McDermott: So pre-COVID, to be honest, it was kind of back to business as usual. Gardner still weighed in occasionally on election policy, and in the process still ran into pretty regular criticism from members of his own party, particularly more progressive ones, that his office was not taking a forward thinking enough approach to election policy.
And his office was still fending off various lawsuits over voting rules. That's also not out of the ordinary these days. But, you know, it was a year before the New Hampshire presidential primary and like always, his office spent a lot of time getting ready for that and in the end, got lots of praise from Democrats and Republicans alike for his role upholding New Hampshire's cherished first-in-the-nation primary. And that praise was especially stark this year coming off of that really chaotic round of caucuses in Iowa.
Rick Ganley: Yeah, well, then let's talk about what happened in March. The pandemic hit. How did that change Gardner's job?
Casey McDermott: So, it wasn't clear at first what that would mean for voting. But in April, Gardner made a decisive, and to be honest, kind of surprising move to say that any New Hampshire voter could cast an absentee ballot this year due to COVID-19. And I say that was surprising because historically he's opposed expanding absentee voting eligibility. But his rationale this time was that he didn't want people to have to choose between their safety during the pandemic and casting a ballot. But, of course, expanding absentee voting in New Hampshire really took a lot of work to prepare all aspects of New Hampshire's elections to run smoothly, and also to allow people to still vote in person safely and to keep poll workers safe in the process.
So Gardner set up a special committee to study what to do. His office convened lots of meetings with local election officials to lay the groundwork. And while certainly there were still critics who said that they wished that certain parts of the process would have been handled differently, overall, what we heard from poll workers and voters alike was that they felt like it was pretty smooth sailing. And the turnout was a record breaking year.
Rick Ganley: So, Casey, where does that leave things heading into Gardner's reelection today?
Casey McDermott: So there are still some ongoing court challenges over voting administration. Notably, there's still one from a group of disability rights advocates who said that the state's not doing enough to make absentee voting accessible enough to those who are blind or have other print disabilities. But like we said, Gardner, for the most part, is on a path to have a much more comfortable reelection this time than the last one.
Rick Ganley: So, Casey, what about questions about election policy in the coming year?
Casey McDermott: I think the questions about election policy that we're likely to hear a lot of in the coming term are going to be building off of what we saw during the pandemic. I think there's going to be questions about whether expanded absentee voting would have a place more permanently in New Hampshire. The state is also poised to select, or at least screen, new ballot counting devices. The ones we have right now are pretty old. And the Secretary of State's office just wrapped up a test of machines to potentially audit the state's election results. So I think, as in past years, Gardner and his deputies are really going to be looked to as an authority on those matters of election policy. So we'll be watching closely to see where they come down on those and many other voting issues in the years to come.