Gardner sets NH primary date

Secretary of State Bill Gardner, hands on desk, holds court as he announces the date for the first-in-the-nation presidential primary Monday at the State House. At far right is former state Sen. Jim Splaine, D-Portsmouth, who authored New Hampshire’s most recent presidential primary law in 1974.

CONCORD — Secretary of State Bill Gardner erased what little suspense remained with his announcement that the first-in-the-nation presidential primary will be Tuesday, Feb. 11.

Gardner said Monday it had been clear for some time he ultimately would agree with the plans of the Democratic and Republican national committees to have the primary on this date, eight days after voters in Iowa attend their party caucuses.

“You have to be patient,” Gardner said.

A move that sealed the date was Gardner’s learning that ballots cast in California’s early voting — which begins Feb. 3 — will not be counted until March 3, the actual date of California’s primary on Super Tuesday.

Gardner said he also needed to wait until Georgia set its primary date, March 24.

The latest Gardner has announced a date for the primary was on Dec. 21 — for the 1996 vote.

In past elections, Gardner and other New Hampshire primary defenders have had to fight attempts by national party leaders to strip the state of its first-in-the-nation position.

“In the last two cycles, the political parties have been helpful to us,” Gardner said.

Gardner invited several who have played a role in protecting the primary, or their descendants, to Monday’s announcement.

They included former state Sen. Jim Splaine, D-Portsmouth, who authored the most recent rewrite of the presidential primary law in 1974; it gave the secretary of state the sole power to set the primary date.

“Bill likes to keep it a mystery,” Splaine said of the announcement. “A little bit of a mystery is a good thing.”

The New Hampshire primary remains a unique contest, Splaine said.

“This gives candidates as well as voters an opportunity to have up-close and personal moments on the campaign trail.” Splaine said.

Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan said the primary will always stand out as an opportunity for lesser-known and less wealthy candidates to get noticed.

“The New Hampshire primary is for the little guy. It is the place where some can fulfill their lifelong dream of running for President,” Scanlan said.

This year, 34 Democrats and 17 Republicans will appear on the ballot.

Gardner, 71, has been secretary of state since 1976.

Others Gardner signaled out for recognition were the late Gov. Meldrim Thomson, who signed Splaine’s bill into law; the late state Rep. Stephen Bullock of Richmond, who wrote the law that estabished the New Hampshire primary in 1916; and the late House Election Laws Committee Chair Natalie Flanagan, who authored changes to Splaine’s law in the 1980s and 1990s.

“We had a primary that became first kind of by default in 1920,” Splaine said.

Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro and other critics have questioned why New Hampshire, a state with few minority residents, has kept its pivotal place on the primary calendar.

“New Hampshire has been in the forefront of some of the most significant social advancements in this country’s history,” Gardner said.

Gardner pointed out New Hampshire was the state where the first African-American baseball players on a Major League-affiliated team took the field, for the Nashua Dodgers in 1946.

Splaine pointed out that the primary states that follow New Hampshire — South Carolina and Nevada — have large minority populations.

“I do think we have some balance when it comes to other states that go after New Hampshire,” Splaine said.

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