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In 2 Remaining Secretary of State Races, Voting Rights Take Center Stage

Georgia and New Hampshire will elect secretaries of state next week, in a year that has been plagued with claims of voter suppression across the country.

Bill Gardner
New Hampshire lawmakers may oust longtime Secretary of State Bill Gardner, right, in part because he served on a voter fraud panel with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, left.
(AP/Holly Ramer)
Last Updated Nov. 29 at 8:38 a.m. ET


  • Georgia and New Hampshire will elect a new secretary of state next week.
  • In both races, voting rights and laws have become the biggest issue.
  • If John Barrow beats Trump-endorsed Brad Raffensberger in Georgia, he would be the first Democrat to win a statewide election there in 20 years.
Bill Gardner is the nation's longest-serving secretary of state, having held the job in New Hampshire since 1976. His reign might come to an end next week.

In New Hampshire, the secretary of state is elected by the legislature, which was just taken over by Democrats ready to make a change. Gardner is a Democrat, but he's being challenged by Colin Van Ostern, who was the party's nominee for governor in 2016.

"Bill has to go to make room for the future," says state Rep. Jan Schmidt.

Like other Democrats, Schmidt believes that Gardner has been insufficient in his support of voting rights. Most notably, he was a member of a federal voter fraud commission headed by Vice President Mike Pence and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach that Democrats believe set off on a fishing expedition to find ways to suppress votes.

Partisan battling over voting rights is also central to the secretary of state's election in Georgia, where a runoff will be held next Tuesday between Republican Brad Raffensberger and Democrat John Barrow. 

Georgia has been a flashpoint in the voting wars this year. Former Democratic state Rep. Stacey Abrams, who lost the governor's race, accused her opponent, GOP Secretary of State Brian Kemp, of putting his thumb on the scale as he oversaw an election in which he was a participant. Kemp's office became the target of frequent, often successful lawsuits from groups charging him with unlawfully purging voters from registration lists. Fair Fight Action, a group allied with Abrams, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday calling for wholesale changes to Georgia's election practices.

"Before this year's election, people would see the secretary of state as a second-tier constitutional office," says Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, a voter registration group that was founded by Abrams. "Now people see it's truly one of the linchpins of our democracy."

Ufot thinks that the Democrats' desire for a "reckoning" after Kemp's management of the office will drive turnout up beyond normal levels next week. Republicans are not dismissing that possibility. But turnout was down by more than 70 percent in early voting on Monday, compared with the start of the final week of early voting for the general election. It ticked up on Tuesday, but the electorate so far has been trending older, whiter and more male than on Nov. 6.

"Democrats want to make vote suppression an election issue," tweeted Michael McDonald, a voting expert at the University of Florida. "When they have a chance to bring change to one of the worst offending states, their base seems to be taking a pass. Perhaps the issue doesn't resonate with their base as much as they might think."

The two contests for secretary of state illustrate that a post once seen as technical and administrative has become a partisan battleground. In Georgia and New Hampshire, as in other states, the secretary of state has other duties aside from overseeing elections, such as business licensing and public records. But disputes about election management have drawn the most attention. (Louisiana will also hold a runoff for secretary of state, on Dec. 8, between Republican Kyle Ardoin and Democrat Gwen Collins-Greensup. Ardoin is the incumbent, having replaced Tom Schedler, who resigned in May over sexual harassment charges. He is favored to beat Collins-Greenup, an attorney, who defeated the Democratic Party's endorsed candidate despite having raised less than $3,000 and buying no advertising.)

"The counting of the votes and enforcing voting regulations in closely divided states could be the difference between winning and losing," says Andrew Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire. "I think it was Stalin who said he didn't care if people could vote or not, he just wanted to be able to count the votes."


Georgia: Voting Rights vs. Voting Integrity

In Georgia, Raffensberger received 49.2 percent of the general election vote, compared with 48.6 percent for Barrow. The runoff was called because neither candidate received a majority of the vote. Libertarian Smythe DuVal, who took 2.2 percent, has endorsed Barrow, who would be the first Democrat to win a statewide election in Georgia in 20 years.

There's always a decline in participation for runoffs. What matters is which party sees support drop off the most.

"The experience here has been that Republicans do a better job of getting back to the polls than Democrats do," says Charles Bullock, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. "Without Stacey Abrams on the ballot, it may be particularly hard to get African-Americans back. That's absolutely critical for Democrats to do well."  

Ufot says her group is doing everything it can to get Democratic voters fired up for the runoff. After giving people "a Thanksgiving break," she says, her group is back to being "really, really annoying" in knocking on doors, making calls and sending out texts.

"Runoffs are always tough, but we are going to see elevated turnout for [this] runoff," she says. "They may not be earthshaking, historic numbers, but they are going to be elevated."

If Democrats can improve their runoff turnout in any significant way, Barrow may present a strong challenge to Raffensberger, who received a tweeted endorsement from President Trump on Monday. 

Barrow served in the U.S. House for a decade. His defeat in 2014 was widely noted at the time because he was the last white Democrat to hold a congressional seat in the Deep South. 

"You've got to be concerned about his ability to outperform the average Democrat," says state Sen. Josh McKoon, who ran unsuccessfully for secretary of state in the GOP primary. "Republicans moved his district around so much that he represented a significant portion of eastern Georgia, beyond what a normal congressman would represent."

Republicans have attacked Barrow as a "pro-abortion liberal," tarring him by association with former President Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi, the once and presumably future Democratic House speaker. They warn that he won't defend the state's voting laws against legal challenges brought by liberal groups. One attack ad warned that "our elections are at risk if liberal John Barrow wins" and that his policies will lead to "more illegal voting than ever."

Barrow, meanwhile, has criticized Raffensberger, a former state representative and CEO of an engineering design company, for compiling outstanding tax liens and has tied him to the GOP's controversial handling of voting issues. 

"When people have learned how many Georgians have been purged from the voter rolls, when they see Georgia's voting machines are old enough to vote themselves, when they learn that Georgia is the only state to turn down money from the federal government to improve election infrastructure, they are blown away," says Ufth, of the New Georgia Project.

Kemp, who stepped down as secretary of state two days after the gubernatorial election, faced lawsuits for, among other things, Georgia's "exact match" policy, which tossed out voter registration forms that didn't comport precisely with information in state and federal databases. And Kemp's "use it or lose it" policy led to the removal from the rolls of more than 100,000 registrants who didn't vote in prior elections.

Republicans insist on the importance of preserving voting integrity measures.

"All the things that have been done to make sure we don't have voter fraud in our state will be at risk if John Barrow is elected," says Republican Sen. McKoon.


The End of Gardner's Long Career in New Hampshire?

Gardner is also facing complaints about voting rights. Gardner ran into a firestorm of criticism after Kobach questioned the validity of the 2016 race for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire at a commission meeting Gardner hosted in the state, even though Gardner defended the results.

But long before the Pence-Kobach commission was established, Gardner testified in favor of policies to place more hurdles in front of people wanting to vote.

"I was astounded when the only person to speak for many of the bills meant to disenfranchise voters was our secretary of state," says Schmidt, the Democratic state representative. "He was telling the committee in testimony that because of a perception of wrongdoing we needed to pass this restrictive bill."

Gardner earned the ire of fellow Democrats this year for supporting a bill establishing a residency requirement for voting. Previously, people only had to be "domiciled," or living, in the state to vote. Now, they have to establish residency, meeting criteria principally concerned with proving they live exclusively in the state.

Gardner also supported a law, enacted in 2017, that created stricter residency requirements for out-of-state college students to vote. The New Hampshire Supreme Court gave its blessing to that law with just over a week to go before the election.

"Democrats are very angry with Gardner because he supported the legislation," says Smith, the University of New Hampshire pollster. "He thought the residency requirement should be in line with other states."

Gardner won the job 44 years ago by aligning himself with young Republicans who didn't like an older GOP legislator then angling for the job. If Gardner is to survive, he will need to put together a bipartisan coalition once again. House Democrats held a nonbinding vote earlier this month that went 179 to 23 against Gardner. The story is a little different on the GOP side.

"Bill Gardner has proven to our state that he can do this job without partisan motivations," Dick Hinch, the House Republican leader, said in a statement. "Republicans in the House will be standing with and voting for a person who has exhibited fairness and decency throughout his career in public service."

Gardner has long been a player in presidential politics, maneuvering to maintain New Hampshire's pride of place in holding the first primaries every four years.

"Protection of the primary is very important to New Hampshire, and he's done a wonderful job of that," says Democratic state Sen. Lou D'Alessandro, who has known Gardner since teaching him civics in the ninth grade.

D'Alessandro, who has served in the legislature since 1972, says that newcomers don't appreciate the role Gardner and his office play in serving the needs of understaffed legislators.

Still, most Democrats are ready to put someone new in Gardner's slot. 

"If any Democrat thinks the present secretary of state, or his deputy, deserves another term in office following this performance, they are simply not paying attention," Peter Burling, a former state senator and member of the Democratic National Committee, said after the state Supreme Court's ruling on residency requirements.

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Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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