CONCORD, N.H. >> New Hampshire voters put down their sparklers and picked up their phones on Independence Day to protest their personal information being sent to President Donald Trump’s commission on voter fraud. And for more than six hours, Secretary of State Bill Gardner himself fielded the calls, often from people who didn’t realize who they had reached.
“The phone was ringing all the time. Every single one that I talked to said, ‘I don’t like the idea that it’s my birthdate. I don’t like the idea that it’s my Social Security number,’” Gardner said Wednesday. “I got a feel for where they’re coming from, and I get it.”
Gardner, a Democrat, is a member of the commission that last week asked secretaries of state for voters’ names, birthdates, partial Social Security numbers and other detailed information if it is public under state laws. A dozen states are refusing to comply, while others plan to provide only limited information.
The nation’s longest serving secretary of state and a fierce defender of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation-primary, Gardner’s participation on the commission has triggered criticism and questions about his fitness for office.
On Tuesday, he told callers only names, addresses, party affiliation and voting history are public, and have been since the 1800s. He also explained his broader goal: figuring out how to restore public trust in the election process at a time when some Americans believe there is voter fraud.
“If people don’t have trust and confidence in the process, they’re not going to go out of their way to be part of it,” he said. “Six months from now, if we don’t provide this, those people who believe that there is a lot of voter fraud are just going to be emboldened by that, because they’re just going to say, ‘What did they have to hide?’”
Under state law, anyone can view the statewide voter database at the state archives building, but it can’t be copied or transmitted. The same law allows Gardner to sell the database to political parties, political committees and candidates. But members of the public can’t get a copy of the entire file, and Gardner’s critics argue he has no authority to either sell or give the database to the commission.
Gardner said he is awaiting an opinion from the state attorney general’s office, but believes it is legal for him to provide or sell the information to the commission. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu agreed, noting that the database wouldn’t exist had the federal government not mandated its creation and paid for it.
“The federal government is simply asking for access to a system they built,” he said Wednesday.
Trump created the commission to investigate his allegations —offered without evidence — that millions of people voted illegally in 2016. Democrats blast it as a biased panel bent on voter suppression, and Gardner is facing growing criticism for both joining it and going along with the request for voter rolls.
House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff on Wednesday began circulating a petition calling for the Legislature to hold a special session to clarify the state law.
Former state Sen. Peter Burling, D-Cornish, said he believes Gardner is no longer capable of making decisions in the state’s best interests.
“I cannot believe that Bill Gardner, confronted with this set of decisions 20 years ago would’ve made the decisions he’s made,” said Burling. “I really think his judgments are clouded at this point.”
Gardner, 68, first took office in 1976 and has been re-elected by the Legislature every two years since. Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat who once taught civics to then-13-year-old Gardner, said he opposes sending the voter information but retains the greatest respect for Gardner.
“I think he does a great job as secretary of state,” he said. “I don’t see any reason not to support him. He’s a quality guy, and his integrity is unquestionable.”
The criticism of Gardner wasn’t contained to the office — Gardner said even one of his brothers drove to his house to complain. But he insists an open examination of the facts is the only way to solve the problem of the public’s mistrust in elections.
“People say, ‘This person shouldn’t have been elected,’” Gardner said, referring to Trump. “Well, he got elected, and he got elected by saying what he said about the system.”