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February 10. 2013 12:50AM

Early voting? Not if Gardner can prevent it


New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner. (THOMAS ROY/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD - Secretary of State William Gardner takes a dim view of congressional efforts to address with federal legislation the long lines some states saw at polling places during the November election.



In his experience, he said, "One-size-fits-all usually fits very few."

The White House and some in Congress are pushing for changes to federal election laws, such as those involving early voting and online voter registration. But if such measures were to pass, Gardner said, "we would first work to get out of it like we did with the National Voter Registration Act."

New Hampshire got an exemption from that 1993 "motor-voter" law by passing same-day voter registration and making it retroactive to the date of the federal legislation.

Gardner stressed that different states have very different cultures. "We are who we are because of our history," he said.

And, he said, "the federal government hasn't had the best of track records when it comes to changing election laws for states. And I would prefer that the federal government stay out of this."

One proposal, the SIMPLE Voting Act, sponsored by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and 89 Democratic co-sponsors, would require states to establish a minimum period of 15 days for early voting prior to the date of an election for federal office.

It would also require states to have sufficient voting systems, poll workers and other resources to ensure "that no individual will be required to wait longer than one hour to cast a ballot at the polling place."

And a bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would require states to have online voter registration.

Gardner said he doesn't favor early voting; data from the recent federal election proved it doesn't improve turnout. And he contends it "diminishes the significance of Election Day itself."

There's another problem with early voting, Gardner said: "We've had people that have pulled out of the presidential primary the week before the primary."

He recalled former Republican presidential candidate Alexander Haig did just that in 1988, endorsing Bob Dole just days before the primary. Gardner's office started getting calls from people who had voted for Haig by absentee ballot and wanted to vote again.

"When it comes to election laws, unintended consequences are almost automatic," Gardner said. "Because you can't think of every possible angle."

Two weeks ago, Gardner was in Washington, D.C., for the winter conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State, where he and other top state election officials voiced concern about possible federal legislation.

A year ago, the NASS passed a resolution urging Congress to "respect our country's legal and historical distinctions in federal and state sovereignty and avoid pre-emptions of state authority when drafting federal legislation."

The 2012 resolution also states, "Federal legislation should not curtail state innovation and authority solely for the sake of creating uniform methods among the states; all legislation should grant states maximum flexibility in determining methodologies for properly and effectively carrying out the duties of secretaries of state, including the protection of voting rights."

Gardner said the state has had bad experiences in the past when the federal government has intervened in New Hampshire's election system. The state is working with the Department of Justice to be released from restrictions imposed under the Voting Rights Act more than four decades ago. (See related story.)

Meanwhile, in the state Legislature, a House bill proposes a study committee to examine all of New Hampshire's election laws and see where there's room for improvement.

Rep. Kathleen Hoelzel, R- Raymond, is the prime sponsor. At a hearing last week, Hoelzel told fellow members of the House Election Law Committee that she envisions the study committee soliciting comments from state and local election officials about which laws work well and which may need updating.

David Scanlan, deputy secretary of state, told the committee his office supports the idea, but would not want the committee to consider early voting. "We just believe that it's not a route the state should go down," he said.

Representatives from America Votes and the League of Women Voters spoke in support of the bill.

Jessica Clark, New Hampshire political and field director for America Votes, urged committee members to reach out to local election officials who are on "the front lines" to get their ideas for making the voting experience a positive one.

Joan Flood Ashwell of the LWV said she would like to see more public education about voting. "New Hampshire is very, very different from any other state in the country, and anyone who moves here will be mystified by the way elections are conducted," she said.

Three Keene residents who attended the hearing suggested the proposed study committee look into allowing minority parties and independent candidates to get on the ballot in New Hampshire.

Darryl Perry of the New Hampshire Liberty Party said "the perfect solution" to increase voter participation is "to create ballot access fairness."

He said opponents claim that would create confusion. But, he said, "New Hampshire is actually very proud of the fact that they have a larger number of candidates running in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. So if ballot or voter confusion is not a problem for the primaries, why would it then all of a sudden become a problem for the general election?"

"The answer is: It's not a problem," he said.


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