CONCORD — The state’s top election official took the first step to set the date of the first-in-the-nation 2020 primary Wednesday, alerting candidates that on Oct. 30 they can start signing up to run.
“We are now heading on the path to setting the official date of the primary,” Gardner said.
During an interview, Gardner stressed he retained the power to decide when to set the date, but he agreed “at the moment” there was no obstacle for that primary to be Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.
“There are no impediments at the moment but we’ll keep monitoring this,” said Gardner, the longest-serving state elections chief in the country who has supervised the setting of 12 primary contests going back to 1976.
The 12-day filing period will be spread over three weeks with the start on Wed., Oct. 30 and the finish on Friday, Nov. 15.
Candidates can sign up any weekday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. except for Monday, Nov. 11, Veterans Day, when the office will be closed.
On the final day of filing, Gardner said the office will stay open until 5 p.m.
“This is the beginning of the tradition but things can change,” Gardner said.
“The latest I set the date was Dec. 21 back in the run up to the 1996 primary. This was when we were encouraging (then-President) Bill Clinton not to file for office in person in Delaware as we were having a fight with them. Thanks to a lot of help from prominent New Hampshire Democrats here, he said he would not file there in person.”
Gardner noted until some weeks ago the prospects for moving the primary date were much greater on several fronts.
The Iowa Democratic Party gave serious consideration to permitting absentee voting at its caucuses to comply with the demands of the Democratic National Committee to allow “virtual” or not-in-person voting so that it would boost attendance in the Hawkeye State.
Ultimately, Iowa party officials dropped the idea and the DNC Rule and Bylaws Committee recently agreed to give the state an exemption from a “virtual” program.
Iowa’s caucuses are traditionally held eight days ahead of the New Hampshire primary.
This has resulted in objections from Gardner because he does not consider a caucus a “similar election” to a primary.
But Gardner said Wednesday if Iowa had moved far ahead in allowing absentee voting, this could have prompted New Hampshire to consider moving its primary date up as well.
Last summer, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed moving the date of that state’s presidential primary to Feb. 4, 2020, just a day after the likely date of the Iowa caucuses and ahead of the New Hampshire primary’s tentative date. But after he faced resistance from state lawmakers, Cuomo signed a bill setting the date of the New York presidential primary for April 28, 2020.
“My understanding is Governor Cuomo initially refused to sign that bill for an April primary until the House Speaker informed him the Legislature wasn’t coming back and it would be the death of the New York primary, so he signed it,” Gardner said.
The most serious threat was averted when California officials said they would not make public results of any early voting in that state until the night of its election next March 3.
“The counting of no ballots until the day of that election is key,” Gardner said.
During the summer, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger also set its primary for next March 24, leaving it outside the Super Tuesday when 14 states will vote with California including Massachusetts, Vermont, Colorado and Virginia.
Georgia Democrats had been pushing for an earlier date to capitalize on the momentum from Stacey Abrams’ surprisingly-strong showing in the 2018 race for governor of that state.
Gardner said Georgia is the only other state than this one that gives the secretary of state unilateral authority in setting its presidential primary.
Candidate filing here attracts massive media attention as candidates or their spouses and surrogates visit Gardner and pay a $1,000 filing fee to place their names on the ballot.
Anyone who can’t afford the fee can file with the names of 10 registered voters coming from each of the 10 counties.
The first-in-the-nation exposure means the filing period usually also attracts dozens of little-known or completely unknown candidates looking for their own 15 minutes of fame while they sign up.
Terry Pfaff, chief operating officer of the New Hampshire Legislature, said his staff will keep track of which candidates are coming in to determine if the State House needs additional security on a given day.
“Only the President has secret service protection right now as I understand it so that’s one less layer we probably need to deal with,” Pfaff said.