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New Hampshire's longtime guardian of its early presidential primary is stepping down

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, left, takes a pen from then-presidential candidate Joe Biden after he filed to have his name listed on the New Hampshire primary ballot on Nov. 8, 2019.
Charles Krupa
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, left, takes a pen from then-presidential candidate Joe Biden after he filed to have his name listed on the New Hampshire primary ballot on Nov. 8, 2019.

Updated January 3, 2022 at 6:04 PM ET

New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner, who earned a national reputation as gatekeeper of the state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary, announced Monday that he will retire in the coming days.

Gardner has held the office since December 1976, when he was elected at the age of 28. He's the longest-serving secretary of state in the nation.

As the state's chief election official, Gardner is responsible for enforcing laws and regulations around voting in New Hampshire. But it's as chief defender of the state's presidential primary that Gardner has earned his loudest praise — and criticism.

At a press conference in his cramped State House office Monday, Gardner waved away a suggestion that he was stepping down for health reasons. He said Dave Scanlan, his current deputy, will serve as the interim secretary of state.

"I know the office which I leave will be in good hands," Gardner said.

A primary legacy

Gardner's departure from office comes as the nominating calendar for the 2024 presidential election remains unsettled, with some states looking to knock New Hampshire and Iowa from their traditional spots at the front of the process.

His retirement also bookends one of the longest and most influential careers in New Hampshire politics.

Gardner, who grew up and lived most of his life in Manchester, got his political start as a class president at the University of New Hampshire. In his early 20s, he was elected to the New Hampshire House as part of a wave that ushered in a crew of young, idealistic lawmakers looking to make a mark in state politics. From early on, Gardner focused on election reform, rallying behind proposals to make it easier to vote and easier for young people to serve in the state Senate. When the secretary of state's job opened up in his third term, Gardner saw an opportunity to have an even bigger impact.

The New Hampshire secretary of state isn't elected by the voting public. Instead, members of the Legislature choose a new secretary at the start of each two-year legislative term. During his 45 years in office, Gardner has cultivated close relationships with individual lawmakers, often welcoming them for long, informal chats in his office — conveniently located just around the corner from the House chamber. That open-door policy helped guarantee his reelection, usually without opposition, for decades.

Though Gardner remained a Democrat throughout his career, in recent years his loudest critics have come from his own party. That criticism culminated in a fierce 2018 reelection challenge from fellow Democrat and former gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern.

At the time, Van Ostern sought to tap into growing criticism from Democrats over Gardner's opposition to electoral reforms meant to widen access to the ballot and his support for stricter Republican-backed voting requirements. Van Ostern also said Gardner's focus on protecting New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary distracted him from other key aspects of the secretary of state role, including campaign finance reform.

That battle over the future of the office also came as Gardner faced sharp criticism over his participation in President Donald Trump's Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Local Democrats, including the state's congressional delegation, said Gardner was legitimizing Trump's false claims of widespread voter fraud and urged him to step down. Gardner defended his role on the commission by saying it was better to be part of the process than stand on the sidelines.

Gardner ultimately prevailed against Van Ostern by just a few votes, thanks to near unanimous support from House and Senate Republicans. He told lawmakers he wanted to oversee one final presidential primary in 2020.

Guardian of political history

Though Gardner professed to serve a purely administrative role, he also made sure to take a front seat in the presidential nominating process. When candidates filed their paperwork to get on the New Hampshire ballot every four years, Gardner would be there to greet them. He often offered an improvised — and lengthy — lecture on the primary's history and urged would-be presidents to see themselves as part of a long history.

Over the decades, Gardner defended the first-in-the-nation primary from many criticisms: that it was unfair to other states; that New Hampshire's relative lack of racial and ethnic diversity skewed the process. But Gardner often downplayed the significance of the state's racial and ethnic makeup as a consideration of its fitness for picking presidents.

When asked ahead of the 2020 primary to respond to concerns that New Hampshire wasn't diverse enough to have such a prominent role vetting presidential candidates, Gardner turned to anecdotes, such as New Hampshire's claim as the home of what is considered the country's first racially integrated baseball team.

"In a state where certain things are not expected, when they happen they have a huge impact, and we have had some huge impact over the years — because human beings are human beings," Gardner told reporters in 2019.

But while calls for reform continued, Gardner managed — without fail — to ensure New Hampshire's presidential primary was in the lead spot when election season rolled around.

Scanlan, the deputy stepping in to fill Gardner's role, has acted as the public face of the office in recent years: leading training sessions with local election officials and testifying on the secretary of state's behalf at legislative committee hearings on proposed voting reforms, among other responsibilities.

In his retirement, Gardner said that he'd likely spend time talking more about the electoral process.

"I love telling the New Hampshire story," he said. "I love talking about our history."

For more on the New Hampshire presidential primary and Gardner's role in keeping it early in the nominating calendar, listen to NHPR's Stranglehold podcast.

Copyright 2022 New Hampshire Public Radio

NHPR Staff