The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bill Gardner offers parting words about N.H.’s primary and the state of democracy

Bill Gardner is hardly a household name nationally, but when he announced this past week that he would be stepping down as New Hampshire secretary of state, the news drew stories in The Washington Post, the New York Times and on Such is the power, prominence and controversy surrounding New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

For 45 years, Gardner has been the state’s leading protector of the Granite State’s prime status, clashing with political leaders from other states jealous of New Hampshire’s privileged position in the nominating calendar and sometimes putting himself at odds with other elected officials and party leaders in his own state.

Though a Democrat, Gardner is fiercely independent and iconoclastic. He is an encyclopedia of knowledge of presidential primaries and in particular the evolution of New Hampshire’s place in that history. He knows what many in other states think about his state’s primary — that New Hampshire is unrepresentative of the nation as a whole and that its influence far exceeds its size and makeup — but he has a counterview.

“We are not representative, certainly, in some things,” he said during a telephone interview on Friday. “But there’s a lot of different factors that come into New Hampshire. What New Hampshire does have is a fair playing field. We don’t have one corporation that has a third of the workers, or one political figure who dominates how people will vote.”

He declined to say which states might fit that description, but the gambling industry dominates Nevada, another early state in the calendar, and in 2020 at least, the endorsement from Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) helped give Joe Biden a huge victory in that state’s presidential primary, another early contest, that quickly propelled Biden to the Democratic Party’s nomination.

Gardner argues that, while it might not seem fair, New Hampshire has earned its position. “It’s a place where the little guy has a chance to come in and see a lot of people,” he said. “We saw that in 1968 and have seen it several times since. … It doesn’t happen every time, but it has happened. And it’s not the end of the [nominating] process, it’s the beginning of the process.”

His 1968 reference was to then-Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s showing in the Democratic primary, when as an anti-Vietnam War candidate, the Minnesotan nearly got more votes than then-President Lyndon B. Johnson and claimed a moral victory. Within weeks, Johnson announced he would not seek reelection.

In 1976, then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, a dark horse Democratic candidate, made it to the White House with New Hampshire’s help. And there have been other cases that, while not leading to their party’s presidential nomination, changed the trajectory of the races those years. Those include upsets by Democratic Sen. Gary Hart (Colo.) in 1984, Republicans Pat Buchanan in 1996 and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in 2000, and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) in 2016, who ran for the Democratic nomination.

New Hampshire’s primary dates to 1916, a product of the progressive era, when many other states were experimenting with the idea of giving more power to individual voters rather than party leaders. Many states later gave them up, and by 1968, Gardner recalled, there were only about a dozen states with a presidential primary.

“There’s a reason why it’s here,” he said of his state’s longevity in helping to pick presidents. “This wasn’t a sapling planted on the main street of a town. It happened here naturally and happened here without New Hampshire ever taking from anyone else. … The people were willing to pay for it when it was not a national event.”

Gardner has fended off efforts by other states to usurp New Hampshire’s pole position in the political calendar. Many years ago, he said, a young Democratic state legislator in Nevada named Harry Reid, who went on to become the U.S. Senate majority leader and who died last month, pushed legislation designed to challenge New Hampshire’s status. “I’ve got all the documents,” he said. “They were shipped to me.” Gardner said the bill was vetoed after a phone call from the then-New Hampshire governor to the then-Nevada governor.

Nevada isn’t the only state whose politicians have tried to dislodge New Hampshire. Politicians in Arizona and Delaware tried. For years, Carl Levin, the long-serving senator from Michigan who died in July, went after the Granite State, unsuccessfully. Gardner’s recollections of battles in 1996 and 2000 are as richly told — and detailed in their retelling — as if they had happened last year. He can still take a listener into the rooms where things happened, recounting from his point of view who said what to him and what he said in return.

The New Hampshire secretary of state has the power to set the date of the presidential primary, and Gardner has adhered strictly to New Hampshire’s law, which says no other similar contest can be held earlier. Iowa, which stages the first contest every four years, gets a carve-out because it has party caucuses, rather than a primary. Those caucuses are under even more challenge today after the botched counting in 2020 and concerns that caucuses disenfranchise some voters.

New Hampshire long was a proving ground that counted, with no one in the modern era who finished below second place going on to win the presidency that year. Biden broke that tradition in 2020 when he finished a weak fifth but nonetheless emerged as the Democratic nominee.

Gardner not only has dealt with efforts to dislodge New Hampshire’s place in the calendar, he also had to fight off a challenge to his position from within his own party.

The secretary of state is elected by the state legislature, and for many years, Gardner enjoyed bipartisan support and faced no opposition. In 2018, however, he drew a Democratic opponent, who criticized him for his participation in the election integrity commission assembled by President Donald Trump.

Trump falsely claimed that millions of undocumented immigrants had voted in 2016. Gardner’s challenger, Colin Van Ostern, said Gardner had helped provide legitimacy to what Trump had claimed by serving on the committee. Gardner prevailed by four votes on a second ballot.

Trump’s commission dissolved in controversy, but not before Gardner confronted its chairman, Kris Kobach, about allegations of problems in New Hampshire. Before its demise, New Hampshire Democratic elected officials called on Gardner to step down, but he refused with a blast back at those politicians. Gardner then and now defended his decision to be a member. “It’s better to be at the table than on the menu,” he said at the time.

He’s gone against Democrats in other ways. Recently, he testified against the For the People Act, the Democratic-sponsored voting bill, and disapproves of a second version that is stalled in the Senate. He said the legislation amounts to a federal intrusion into state responsibility. New Hampshire’s Democratic senators and representatives have taken issue with him publicly.

Gardner said he dislikes how Trump has behaved since losing the 2020 election. But he believes there are widespread concerns about the integrity of elections that go across party lines and that predate Trump’s election. “We have to have not only fair, free and equal elections,” he said. “We have to have people believing there should be fair, free and equal elections. That is fundamental. And if one side doesn’t believe it, that is a problem. And we can’t just say they’re terrible people. We’re not going to get there [that way].”

“Why are we the longest surviving free democratic society?” he asked. “Because we’ve had stability. We’ve had people coming in and being part of the country. … We’re one country. We’re diverse, yes, but diversity has been our strength.”

Gardner believes dialogue across political lines is essential, but many argue that, given what Trump has done and the willingness of most in his party to embrace those falsehoods, that isn’t possible until Trump’s influence has been dislodged.

Gardner has been a fixture in New Hampshire for nearly half a century. He leaves office at a moment of political crisis and distrust. After he departs, his state’s presidential primary likely will face future challenges, but it is the larger question about the future of democracy that poses the bigger issue. Out of office, Gardner said, he plans to be part of that debate.