CONCORD, NH — Every four years, members of the press and politicos gather at the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s Office to hear him set the date of the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. This year, the crowd was lighter than normal, and there was no pushing or shoving or any journalists trying to curry favor to be the first to announce the date on Twitter as in the past. Instead, it was a history lesson, of sorts.
Why does New Hampshire go first? Bill Gardner, the longest-serving secretary of state in the nation, introduced one living and a number of decedents of the “pillars of the primary” – political people who have kept the tradition intact.
Voters in the Granite State, a state with some of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation, will have 50 candidates to consider on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, the date Gardner set for the primary.
Asked when he knew what the date would be, Gardner was coy and didn’t answer at what point, exactly, he knew.
Gardner stood before a desk donated by the family of state Rep. Stephen Bullock, a farmer from Richmond who wrote the original legislation in 1913 creating a process in which delegates could be elected by voters in the state to the convention to nominate party candidates in May 1916. Gardner had to make sure none of the other secretaries of states would reschedule their contests ahead of New Hampshire. Before 1913, New Hampshire had a caucus process in which delegates were chosen by the insiders of the political parties. Sybil Dupuis, Bullock’s great-granddaughter, was in attendance to celebrate the occasion.
The law was amended to the second Tuesday in March – to coincide with Town Meeting elections for 1920’s primary. Elizabeth Carter, the great-granddaughter of state Rep. John Glessner of Bethlehem, who updated Bullock’s law, was also there.
“It’s quite an honor actually, for me, to be here, with those have made this happen, from the beginning,” Gardner said.
In the 1940s, Richard Upton, the speaker of the House, believed voters should have a direct role in voting for the candidates themselves, who would then win delegates to a convention. That bill became law in 1949; and, for the first time, voters were able to cast ballots for a candidate, not just delegates, in 1952. His son, William Upton, was also at the announcement. Since then, Gardner said, every president elected has won a New Hampshire primary either during their first election or for re-election.
Across a half a century, former Gov. Hugh Gregg, a Republican and one of the youngest people ever elected to the position of governor, was involved in being a cheerleader for the primary along with state Rep. Jim Splaine (D-Portsmouth), Gardner said. Members of the Gregg family continue to be involved in promoting the tradition. Cy Gregg, the governor’s oldest son, nodded with approval as Gardner heralded the time they spent working together, which included the release of the book, “Why New Hampshire,” in 2003, before he died that year.
Splaine, the only “pillar of the primary” who is still alive, worked to preserve the tradition by approving a law in the mid-1970s to ensure the New Hampshire primary would always occur at least seven days ahead of any other primary, because other states were attempting to move their contests earlier. There was even a proposal for a New England primary, featuring voting in all six states at the time. Preservation of the process was a bipartisan effort, Gardner said, with then-Gov. Meldrim Thomson, a Republican, supporting the effort. His son, Tom Thomson, was also at the event.
Arguments have been made, since Vietnam and Watergate, as to whether New Hampshire should go first, Splaine said. If we think politics is divisive today, it was just as bad then, with friends and families not speaking to each other because of the war, corruption and the lead-up to and outcomes of two election cycles, 1968 and 1972. Splaine, Thomson, and others, however, thought the primary and intimacy of the process needed to be saved. So the responsibility of setting a date was given to the secretary of state.
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“Bill has been able to give artistry to that process,” Splaine said. “He waits until he really needs to set the date, and then he sets the date.”
State Rep. Natalie Smith Flanagan of Atkinson, the first woman to lead the House’s election committee, did a lot of tweaking of the law with Splaine after that. She died in 2014 at the age of 100, but her son, Perry Smith, was also in attendance Monday for the date announcement.
“We had to deal with that, a lot, in the 1990s,” Gardner said. “We were able to overcome those (challenges), with the flexibility we had, to do it.”
Splaine first started to be involved in campaigns in 1960 when Jack Kennedy ran, and he was leafleting the North End of Portsmouth as a teen. He said he’d seen the “evolution” of the process during all that time. One of the reasons he and others fight so hard to preserve the tradition was the intimacy of the process and being able to look candidates in the eye and ask them real questions. Today, Splaine added, there were probably many Granite State teenagers whose first experience in politics would be to meet a presidential candidate.
“It has been a fascinating thing to watch,” he said. “It gives candidates as well as voters the opportunity to get up close and personal with each other … you can ask more questions when they’re not at a podium with 2,000 people at some rally.”
Nationalization, Lack Of Diversity, Other Issues
Gardner was asked about the nationalization of the nomination process, whether the state’s new voter registration laws might harm turnout, whether New Hampshire should have early voting, as well as concerns about the state not being diverse enough to host the first primary.
Gardner said people feared that television and computers might make the primary process irrelevant because it would be nationalized, but that it didn’t happen.
During the last presidential primary, Gardner said, more than 54 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, more than 14.5 percent higher than the rest of the country. Only one other state had close to 40 percent. All the other states, on average, were around 28 percent. According to turnout data, 1960 was the last primary where New Hampshire didn’t lead in turnout, Gardner stated.
For the last two cycles, Gardner said, New Hampshire had voter identification provisions in place, but at the polls, everyone still gets to vote. Even with the provisions, turnout increased. It increased as well for the primary in Wisconsin in 2016 even though it had a new voter ID provision, he said.
New Hampshire laws made it “one of the easiest states to vote,” Gardner said, and were more lenient for voter registration than in 46 other states on residency requirements.
“At that time, they were saying the same things they are saying today,” Gardner said. “When you balance the ease of voting with the security of the process, that’s the desire, and when you do that, states will be like us. I expect we are going to be just the way we were (compared) to the previous cycles.”
On early voting, Gardner said some states that had implemented the changes saw their turnouts drop. Voters in other states that allow voting as early as 30 days before the primary also risk choosing candidates that later drop out of the race, essentially wasting their votes when the ballots were tabulated.
Gardner admitted New Hampshire wasn’t racially diverse and shared a story about then-Sen. Barack Obama being asked a question about all of the white people in a crowd at an event he attended when he first ran. The candidate, who would place second in the primary in 2008 but win the presidency easily, replied the crowd was probably full of Red Sox fans and he was a White Sox fan and that it didn’t matter. The issue, Gardner said, “always tends to come up,” but the state had been “at the forefront of some of the most significant social advances made in this country.”
Splaine called the issue of diversity “important” but said the New Hampshire primary made the candidates meet voters in ways that they would not have to do in other states. If the political parties wanted to move the caucuses of more diverse states ahead of New Hampshire, they could, but hadn’t. He also stressed the state’s diversity of thought and economics – candidates would meet with people who worked in fisheries, tourism, manufacturing, and other industries — real people, in other words. Splaine said both political parties also allowed diverse states to come earlier in the process, specifically South Carolina and Nevada.
When asked if any of his political friends were concerned, speaking about the issue, or wanted allow other states to move ahead and give up their role as first-in-the-nation voters due to a lack of diversity in the state, Splaine said, “Not a great deal … more people are concerned about the way the candidates campaign.”
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