Gardner: Voting problems could not happen in state

WILTON – The problems encountered in the 2000 presidential election in Florida – all those hanging chads, voter list purges, malfunctioning voting machines and partial recounts – can’t happen in New Hampshire. There are laws against such things.

“New Hampshire is unique and has a different political culture,” Secretary of State Bill Gardner told about 240 people who had gathered at the Town Hall Theatre to view a documentary, “Unprecedented: the 200th Voting Edition,” a study of the Florida problems.

“Much of what happened in Florida, we observed in 1986,” Gardner said. “We banned the punch cards.”

The film puts the blame on Republicans, particularly Gov. Jeb Bush and his secretary of state. Gardner said the problem lies more with the interpretation of federal legislation passed in the aftermath of Watergate, election of secretaries of state by partisan ballot and some poor decisions by state officials in the matter of the recount.

Until Watergate, he said, “The federal government did not interfere with state elections (of federal positions). We had campaign spending limits. We’ve kept the law on the books as a guideline. Now, because of Florida, they are getting into it more.”

The Help America Vote Act is the latest effort, and the voter registration list purges were based on that rule, he said. New Hampshire is exempt from that law because states that allow voting day registration have other rules.

In New Hampshire, the secretary of state is appointed. “You don’t run on a party ticket,” he said, “without regard to party. I stay completely out of the elections. I’ve never been to a rally.” Mostly, he added, “I don’t have to do any fund raising.”

Gardner has held his position for 30 years, the longest-serving secretary of state in the state’s history, is the longest-serving current secretary in the country, and serves as the chairman of the national Secretaries of State Association. He spoke for about an hour following the film, entertaining the crowd with tales of past elections, and when the theater had to be cleared to get ready for the next show, he moved downstairs to the Court Room and continued the informal conversation with about 30 people for almost two hours more.

Much of his talk concerned recounts, a major bone of contention in Florida, and electronic voting machines, which are used by this state’s cities and larger towns.

“If (Al Gore) had requested a statewide recount in the first days (after the election), not a selective one” things could have been different, “but as time went on and more problems were found, he couldn’t go back, not and remain credible. How can you do a partial recount?” he asked.

“We have done more recounts than anybody,” Gardner said, 28 of them in 2000. “With that many recounts, you find the problems. It is much easier to make mistakes with a system that doesn’t allow recounts easily. If Al Gore wanted a recount in New Hampshire, all he would have to do is sign a paper and pay $500, and we’d hold a statewide recount.”

Here, he said, all ballots are printed by the state, distributed by state police, and after the vote are sealed in boxes and returned to Concord for storage.

“With punch cards,” he said, “there was always the uneasy feeling about the intent of the voter. We saw all of the same issues as Florida.”

The issue now, he noted, “is there is no paper trail with electronic voting. You want to believe the machine is nonbiased. But if the machine makes a mistake, there is no mercy.”

In 1990, he said, Manchester bought the latest in technology, a touch-screen system. “Computer scientists warned me they were not secure. It was later shown what the problems were, and they no longer have them. You can’t have a recount without a paper trail.”

The state has done more than 300 recounts since he has been secretary, he said. “In 1974, the U.S. Senate (race) was eventually decided by two votes.”

When counting ballots by hand, he noted, “you try to read the intent (of the voter). You have to make a few judgment calls. But you recount in front of the candidates, who have to certify all the ballots. It is all very open and transparent. That is what makes us different.”

States that have invested huge sums in electronic voting are reluctant to change now, he said. Two bills have been introduced in Congress to require paper backups, he said. “(Reps.) Charlie Bass and Jeb Bradley have signed onto both of them.” However, he is skeptical of any one-size-fits-all voting legislation because of the differences between rural and urban situations.

The Help America Vote Act will provide about $16 million for New Hampshire, he said, and will provide electronic voting machines for every polling place to be used by the handicapped, especially the blind. “But we didn’t need a lot (of the other provisions), and the money has been put into a fund to maintain the required machines.”

In answer to questions, Gardner said the state has no interconnected voting systems, the moderator has to see all the votes, and all machines are tested and certified by the state before elections and “with all our recounts we’ve had no problems yet. With machines, votes almost always increase for both candidates.”