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NH SOS Bill Gardner Is a Democrat. His Decision to Join Trump’s Voting Commission Shocks His Own Party.

New Hampshire Secretary of State William ‘Bill’ Gardner is widely revered as a bipartisan state official. He has to be since he’s the longest-running secretary of state in the nation and is reelected to his post by an overwhelming majority of Republicans and Democrats alike.

And he takes his job very seriously. He’s in charge of the state department that oversees all general elections, primary elections, voter registration, and recounts within the state, including the First-in-the-Nation primary. With claims of voter fraud in the 2016 election being discussed often by President Donald Trump, Gardner has played a more active role in politics than simply overseeing elections. He’s become a fierce advocate for keeping New Hampshire’s primary status and for tightening voter laws to make sure Granite State voters are the only people voting in the state’s elections.

With that last issue, he’s siding with Republicans who are trying to get a bill passed this legislative session that would define the differences between “residency” and “domicile.” Yet, Gardner is actually a Democrat. He began his career in New Hampshire politics as a Democratic state representative before he was elected secretary of state in 1976 by the Legislature, and he has shown over the years that he’s not afraid to stand up to members of his own party for what he believes is right.

“We’re not denying anyone who shows up at the polls to be able to vote; we’re just saying we want to be able to let everyone know these votes are valid and true,” Gardner told lawmakers when Senate Bill 3, a voting reform bill, was introduced in March.

Democrats and outside groups are pushing the narrative that the GOP bill is a form of voter suppression and would especially discourage college students from voting. But Gardner said he would not support legislation if he thought it would hurt voter turnout.

In fact, he’s so serious about voter integrity that he agreed to join Trump’s national commission to review voting registration and voting processes used in federal elections. Trump ordered the creation of the Commission on Election Integrity that will be chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and co-chaired by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

“There is a reason I’m doing this,” he told WMUR. “I care a lot about this. I’ve spent my whole life dealing with it, and it’s too bad that over half of the people in the country feel that there is vote fraud. Let’s find out why.”

Earlier this year, Trump claimed he lost the popular vote in the November election because “millions” of people voted illegally. He said that he lost New Hampshire’s four electoral votes because “thousands” of people crossed the Massachusetts border “on buses” to vote illegally.

Gardner disagreed with the president, saying there was no widespread election fraud in the state, but there were a few cases of people voting in New Hampshire who shouldn’t have in previous elections.

In 2014, Gardner said he saw illegal voting with his own eyes.

“We have drive-by voting,” he told the New Hampshire Union Leader. “The people that ran the polling place called me over, and said they had three people who didn’t know whether they could vote, and they wanted me to answer the questions. So I go over, there were two young men and a young woman, and they were AmeriCorps [volunteers].”

The woman was from Washington state and said she missed the deadline, but “really wanted to vote.”

“She said she was going back to Washington state the first of December. I said, well that should answer it for yourself as to whether this is now your home,” Gardner said.

She did not ultimately vote, but the two men did. He said he is essentially powerless in these situations unless the Legislature decides to act.

Under SB 3, they allow the secretary of state’s office to investigate a voter registrant’s information if local supervisors are unable to verify a voter’s domicile.

Looking at voter fraud or voter integrity (depending on who you’re talking to) is something Gardner has been wanting to look into for a while. When Republicans introduced a similar bill in the Legislature  in 2015, former Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan vetoed it, even though Gardner gave it his approval. He was also in favor of instituting a photo ID law when casting a ballot.

Democrats in the state are unhappy with Trump’s new commission, and are surprised that Gardner would agree to participate. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire called it a “sham” and a “kangaroo commission.”

“Signing this piece of paper will not make Mr. Trump’s false statements about voter fraud true,” said ACLU-NH Executive Director Devon Chaffee. “Our expectation is that, while on this commission, Secretary Gardner will only join conclusions in the commission’s final report that support voting rights and are based on actual proven facts, not unsupported speculation.”

House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff is calling on Gardner to assure that New Hampshire taxpayers are not paying for his travel or accommodation when he works on the commission.

“In addition, I would hope that your state time is not used in the pursuit of your work for the commission,” he wrote in a Friday letter. “As you are well aware, many Democrats and Republicans in New Hampshire believe that there is no validity to President Trump’s claims that there was voter fraud in NH. It is my hope that you will bear this in mind when presenting information or otherwise engaging your time on this commission.”

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Could There Be a Legal Battle if Towns Postpone Tuesday’s Elections?

Monday was supposed to be the calm before the storm, but in New Hampshire politics, the day was muddled with confusion over the legality of towns’ rights to postpone Tuesday’s elections due to the impending blizzard.

The day started with Secretary of State William Gardner saying, “We don’t have snow days in the law for elections.”

Yet, town officials throughout the state were taking matters into their own hands and postponing the annual “second Tuesday in March” elections for later in the week after the snowstorm subsided. Reasons for postponement were mostly due to ensuring the safety of residents and first responders from hazardous road conditions. Some parts of the state are expected to receive between 10 to 20 inches on Tuesday.

The secretary of state’s office maintained its position that by state law, towns are required to hold elections regardless of the snow and expected blizzard conditions. If they don’t, there could be legal consequences. Town officials say a different state law allows them to change the day of the election in an emergency situation.

“I don’t know what the consequences will be,” Paula Penney, elections assistant at the secretary of state’s office, told The Portsmouth Herald. “If they don’t have the election tomorrow, it may end up in superior court. But I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t have any indication that (the office’s) position will change.”

The two laws in question are RSA 669:1 and 40:4. RSA 669:1 is the law the secretary of state’s office was citing as requiring towns to hold the election, regardless of the snow. The law states:

“All towns shall hold an election annually for the election of town officers on the second Tuesday in March…”

RSA 40:4 is cited by the towns for giving them the flexibility to change the date of election in the event of an emergency. This law states:

“In the event a weather emergency occurs on or before the date of a deliberative session or voting day of a meeting in a town, which the moderator reasonably believes may cause the roads to be hazardous or unsafe, the moderator may, up to 2 hours prior to the scheduled session, postpone and reschedule the deliberative session or voting day of the meeting to another reasonable date, place, and time certain.”

So which interpretation is right? Some legal experts said it’s not exactly clear if that law refers to voting for races in elections or voting for budget and other town issues at traditional town hall meetings.

John Greabe, a law professor at the University of New Hampshire, told NH Journal that the specific rule would “govern over” the general rule.

“It’s not uncommon for there to be two statutes that seem to be at odds with each other,” he said. “It’s a traditional approach to the conflict of laws where there is a more specific rule and a more general rule. It’s common for courts to go with the more specific rule.”

Cordell Johnston, government affairs council with the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said the organization sides with the towns.

“I don’t think there is any inconsistency in the law,” he told NH Journal. “We believe it’s very clear that they [towns] could move the election.”

He mentioned that a group of municipal lawyers on a list-serv “overwhelmingly” agreed that the moderator has the clear authority to reschedule the election.

With significant confusion surrounding the issue, Gov. Chris Sununu weighed in on debate. He spoke with municipal leaders and Attorney General Joe Foster in a Monday afternoon conference call encouraging them to hold elections, but said the state would not mandate them to do it.

“It’s our understanding that a lot of towns have already made a choice to postpone their elections,” he told reporters. “There are some differing opinions at the state level as to whether that is a valid process for them to take. The best we can do is to strongly recommend that all towns stay open for voting tomorrow. We think that’s a very important part of the process. But given the differing opinions, I don’t think we’re in a position to mandate that towns stay open or change their direction if they choose not to.”

Sununu cautioned town officials that if they postpone Tuesday’s elections, they are doing so “at their risk,” suggesting the town could be open to lawsuits for voter suppression.

“It would create a lot of confusion if one town voted on a school issue and another town did not, and you get into an issue of do you release the results and how is that processed,” he said. “You never want someone to have their vote suppressed, or have someone not be able to participate in the process because of confusion at the local level.”

Johnston said he interpreted Sununu’s message that “the state would not challenge a town’s decision to reschedule,” but an individual voter could.

“What I imagine could happen, although unlikely, a voter who is not happy about how things played out, would go to court and claim that the moderator violated his or her authority in rescheduling the vote,” he said. “But because the law is really clear, I don’t think the challenge will go that far.”

In order to make the interpretation very clear, and to avoid confusion like this in the future, New Hampshire Democratic leaders are planning to introduce emergency legislation this week to ensure that results from any town elections postponed due to snow are enforceable.

Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn and House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff released a statement announcing their plan to introduce legislation Wednesday during the Senate Rules and Enrolled Bills Committee:

“As elected officials, we have a solemn duty to ensure the safety of our citizens and no election should require voters to risk their safety in order to participate. Our election workers and town moderators are well-trained and take the task of facilitating transparent and fair elections seriously. We should trust them to make the best decision for their communities and for the safety of their people. That’s why we will attempt to introduce emergency legislation at this week’s Senate Rules Committee meeting to ensure that results from any elections postponed due to public safety concerns are enforceable and so that our local officials can make the right decision for their communities without fear of a legal challenge.”

Sununu agreed that the Legislature should take action to resolve the conflicts in state law, but it’s unclear if he will support the Democrats’ bill when it is introduced.

Is your local election and town meeting postponed? Check out the rolling list here as town officials make the decision.

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