2022 Perkins Bass Visitor, Bill Gardner speaks on elections

On Wednesday, April 13, former New Hampshire secretary of state Bill Gardner came to campus to deliver the 2022 Perkins Bass Distinguished Lecture. He spoke to a crowd of around 50 in Filene Auditorium about the importance of New Hampshire's "first in the nation" primary, his efforts to reform election laws in the 1970s, and the need to restore trust in democracy.

Gardner was introduced by former government professor and Rockefeller Center for Public Policy director Linda Fowler, who remarked that it was her first talk in several years in front of a live audience. She also pointed out that had the talk's title — "The Administration of Elections and their Impact on American Democracy" — been proposed to her when she directed the Center from 1995 to 2004, she would have "hooted in derision."

"Who in the world," she asked the audience, "would come to a program on election administration?" But, noting the disputed elections of 2000 and 2020, the "politicization of election law," and rising numbers of Republicans reporting distrust in the electoral system, she argued that we now have an appreciation for the importance of election administration because "it affects everybody, everywhere, where we vote."

 Gardner opened his talk by noting that the United States is the oldest continuously functioning democracy in the world. That legacy, however, requires defense; citizens must have "utmost confidence" in elections that are "fair, free, and equal," he said. "If that stops, if we're not able to do that in the future — it's not going to survive; it'll be the end."

Gardner, who oversaw New Hampshire elections as secretary of state from 1976 until his retirement this past January, said he noticed a change starting around a decade ago when some people began questioning the legitimacy of elections — before, he added, Donald Trump became president in 2016. He concluded his individual remarks by emphasizing that when people do not have faith in elections, it's up to society to rebuild that trust.

"We have to have that confidence in elections, and if people don't have that confidence, we got to be willing to try to do everything we can to find out why," he said. "And we've got to do it with a dialogue, and if we don't do it with a dialogue, it won't get better on its own."

Fowler asked Gardner about other states' previous efforts to usurp New Hampshire's "first-in-the-nation" primary status, attempts at which have occurred several times over his long tenure. He explained that primaries first became important in the 1970s — especially in 1976, when then-Georgia governor Jimmy Carter used wins in Iowa and New Hampshire to make himself a contender for the nomination.

"Why is the New Hampshire primary important for the country? It's important for the country because it gives the little guy a chance," Gardner posited. "It gives the person who might not have the most fame or fortune a chance to come to a small state, spend time here, and, if the person can win or do much better than anybody expected, that person is given a big boost."

After Gardner regaled the audience with several political tales, including the disputed Senate election of 1974 and a 1983 meeting with Nancy Pelosi — who was then in charge of the Democratic Party's nomination process for the 1984 cycle — Fowler remarked that when she came to New Hampshire in 1995, elections were much more open than in New York.

Gardner returned to his emphasis on "free, fair, and equal." Drawing on tales from the civil rights movement, he said that when he was growing up in New Hampshire, voters still had to read the state constitution and pass other tests at the polls in order to vote. He aimed to change that.

"When it comes to voting, it's one of the only things, if the only thing in life, that everyone has the same weight, so to speak," he said. "You might be in line at the polling place, and the person in front of you is the richest in the town or the state, the person behind you is the strongest, someone else is the smartest, all these different things that are all human aspects."

Around the 45-minute mark, the forum opened to questions. Audience members asked about student voting rights — which Gardner said he supports, but that he tried to balance them with the need for all voters to be treated equally — and about Gardner's thoughts on open primaries versus closed primaries. On the latter, he said that he likes New Hampshire's system whereby people not affiliated with a party can temporarily join one to vote in their primary, and then ditch the party on their way out of the polling place.

The Perkins Bass Lecture Program was established in 2011, according to Fowler, and brings prominent New Hampshirites to campus for speaking engagements. Gardner will return in the fall for the second lecture in the series.

This article was written by public programming assistant Kyle Mullins '22.