Secretary of State hosts controversial briefing on federal legislation to expand voting access

By: - April 21, 2021 6:51 pm

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on voting rights on Tuesday, April 20, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) listens in. (Photo by Bill Clark-Pool/Getty Images)

This story was updated April 21, 2021 at 9 p.m.

The Secretary of State’s Office held a briefing on Wednesday for state election officials about the impact federal legislation would have on elections in New Hampshire.  

The briefing, which was led by Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan, came after Secretary Bill Gardner’s controversial testimony in opposition to the For the People Act on Tuesday to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Some New Hampshire lawmakers said the briefing was inappropriate given Gardner’s testimony against the legislation.

In a statement on Tuesday, state Sen. Becky Whitley, a Hopkinton Democrat, said: “Given the Secretary of State’s aggressive and public opposition to the For The People Act, it is entirely inappropriate for his office to host what will clearly be a biased taxpayer-funded ‘briefing’ for our local election officials.”

While the For the People Act has the backing of New Hampshire’s entire congressional delegation, Gardner testified in opposition to it on Tuesday. He told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that the federal government should stay out of state elections and that the proposed legislation could decrease voter turnout. While Gardner is a Democrat, his position on election law often aligns with Republican views.

“I am deeply troubled and concerned about the direction Congress would take the states in terms of the conduct of elections,” Gardner testified on Tuesday. “An unjustified federal intrusion into the election process of the individual states will damage voter confidence, diminish the importance of Election Day, and ultimately result in lower voter turnout.”

But state lawmakers said Gardner’s position on the legislation has no place in an informational hearing for state election officials.

“Secretary Gardner is using taxpayer money and time to lobby against anti-corruption and pro-voting rights measures,” Whitley said in a tweet on Wednesday.

Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka also called the Wednesday briefing “inappropriate.”

Scanlan said he would keep politics out of the briefing, which was meant to inform state election officials about how the federal legislation would impact election requirements in the state. If the bill becomes law, it would include provisions to expand curbside voting, expand automatic voter registration, and make voting day a federal holiday, among other measures aimed at increasing access to voting.

“This will be a very involved process. You have to put the meat on those bones to make it work if it does pass,” Scanlan said about the proposal.

“If this becomes law, there’s going to be a lot of changes,” said Orville Fitch, legal counsel and assistant secretary of state.

The ranking Democrat on the House Election Law Committee, Rep. David E. Cote, called the briefing “needlessly alarming,” in a statement released on Wednesday.

“If the Secretary of State’s Office has concerns about how HR 1 – federal legislation – would apply to New Hampshire, they should discuss those concerns as part of the legislative process, rather than trying to frustrate appropriate attempts to combat voter suppression and expand access to the ballot box,” Cote said in the statement.

Cote said that many of the elements of the proposal are similar to efforts that are already underway in the state.

“The photo ID provision in HR 1 is nearly identical to the process New Hampshire currently uses, and the proposed expansion of absentee voting was implemented with tremendous success in New Hampshire in the 2020 election,” he said.

Some attendees questioned why the federal legislation was the subject of a briefing, while state-level proposals that would impact elections have not been covered in the same way.

“To me, this is adding to confusion. This isn’t law and we don’t know if it will be. To say ‘supervisors will have to …’ is going to make some people think they now have to do this,” wrote Jean Lightfoot, Hopkinton’s supervisor of the checklist, to other participants in the briefing.

Another participant asked for information about how the bill would move forward.

Scanlan replied that he wasn’t an “expert” on the U.S. Senate, but that a filibuster might block the bill’s passage.

“You know if you have strong feelings one way or the other on this bill, you might want to let your U.S. senators know from New Hampshire so that they can take that into consideration before they cast their vote,” he said.

The Secretary of State’s Office has published a statement from Gardner in opposition to the legislation on their website.

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Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee reported on energy and environment for New Hampshire Bulletin. She also previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.