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Keep our election integrity intact

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Message Bill Gardner
Secretary of State Gardner: Keep our election integrity intact


This Wednesday, the Legislature will take up two bills that will damage our democracy and constitutional right to have free and fair elections. The effect will be to diminish the basic rights of voters and allow the power of money to run rampant in this state in the same way it did at the beginning of the last century when it consumed the political process.

Although New Hampshire is known for being a beacon of democracy, this is about to change if two bills become law.

Senate Bill 91 would remove the prohibition of corporations making contributions to candidates, committees, and parties directly from the corporate treasury. This overturns a long-standing state policy dating back to 1911 when legislation was signed into law by then Governor Robert Bass of Peterborough to reform the way political campaigns were financed. With that law, President Theodore Roosevelt and the progressive era reformers had won another grassroots victory.

That prohibition is still written in our law today 96 years later, but in 1999 a court ruled that statute was unconstitutional because it was overly broad. As long as the statute prohibited corporations from using political action committees with segregated accounts, the law could not be enforced by the attorney general.

This year, State Representative Jim Splaine of Portsmouth has tried to do what several other legislators have attempted since 1999 -- to prohibit corporations, partnerships, and labor unions from contributing from their treasuries, but to allow them to create political committees to fulfill their constitutional right to participate in electoral politics. His bill would require disclosure by those committees to show where the money came from, whom they contribute to, and how much. Voters deserve that information.

A Legislative "conference committee" last week took a different approach, which would eliminate all prohibitions on donations from the treasuries of corporations, partnerships, and unions, with no disclosure by them required. This would open the floodgates for corporations all across the country that would now be able to give directly from their corporate treasuries to New Hampshire candidates for state and county office.

Since most states do not allow direct corporate contributions, and federal law does not allow this either for federal candidates, New Hampshire would become a haven for big money and the scandals that it has led to in the past. The way to prevent this is simple: defeat the committee of conference report on SB 91 and keep our prohibition on corporate contributions intact. It can be fixed during the next several months before the next election by other legislation being sponsored by Rep. Splaine that does an excellent job at providing proper campaign finance disclosure.

The second bill, House Bill 429 creates a situation where voters casting write-in votes for some candidates will not have their vote counted. This might be hard to believe, but it's true. We must never forget the sacrifice so many have made to keep us free to vote for whomever we want and have that vote counted. This bill would allow political party leaders who might not even live in the town or city to be represented to disregard the will of the voters and insert a new candidate's name.

The essential question in this policy debate is simple: Who should decide who is nominated for public office, the voters or political party officials?

The strong tradition of primaries with nomination by voters, not party leaders, was an essential democratic reform introduced for state nominations in 1909 to give power to the citizens and lessen the influence of the railroad interests that then controlled the state.

In 1913, state representative Stephen Bullock from Richmond successfully led the fight to allow voters, rather than political party leaders, to pick the delegates to select our Presidential nominees.

These were all important reforms that strengthened the rights of voters to ensure that their voices were heard and their votes counted. Let's not go back to the days when powerful interests negated the rights of voters.

New Hampshire's proud traditions have been built on a granite foundation of transparency and openness in government and insuring that the votes of our citizens determine the outcome of elections. These two bills would move New Hampshire in a new direction, eroding these fundamental principles and values. For our future, the Governor and Legislature should not let that happen.
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Bill Gardner is the current Secretary of State in the State of New Hampshire and the longest serving state level Secretary of State in US History.
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Keep our election integrity intact

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