CONCORD, N.H. (CN) – A Democrat who has been the longest-serving secretary of state in the nation won another term in New Hampshire on Wednesday after a close race that drew scrutiny on his voter-rights record.
Elected to his 22nd term this afternoon in a 209-205 vote by lawmakers, William Gardner narrowly defeated former executive councilor Colin Van Ostern, a fellow Democrat who also ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2016.
New Hampshire is one of only three states that elects its secretary of state through its legislature. For the first time in its history, lawmakers were forced to go into two rounds of voting after neither candidate received the necessary 208 votes to win in the first round.
Gardner, 70, sought another two-year term in part to oversee the state’s upcoming 100th anniversary celebration of its first-in-the-nation presidential-primary status. Despite his high approval as a fierce protector of the state’s coveted primary position, Gardner came under attack in recent years for his participation in President Donald Trump’s disbanded voter-fraud commission and support of stricter residency requirements to vote.
Representative Tim Josephson, a Democrat elected from the state’s Upper Valley, was one of those concerned with Gardner’s recent record. “I’m voting for Colin because I feel it’s time for fresh ideas and 21st century approach to the office,” Josephson said in an interview Tuesday. “Bill Gardner has done a lot of great things for New Hampshire over the years, but these past two years really made me wonder if he fully understands the times we live in.”
The New Hampshire Democratic Party sued Gardner in 2017 after Republican Governor Chris Sununu signed a controversial voter-identification bill into law. In October, Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Brown found that the bill “does nothing to actually prevent voter fraud.” Gardener meanwhile disputed that Brown’s order was evidence of voter suppression, saying at the time that New Hampshire was “the easiest state in the country” to vote in.
Through his Free and Fair political action committee, Van Ostern campaigned on what he believes is Gardner’s failure to protect the rights of voters and inability to modernize the state’s elections. Raising in excess of $200,000, Van Ostern held more than 200 forums with state lawmakers to introduce proposals to update the office. Republicans, who lost control of both the House and Senate in the midterm elections, meanwhile characterized Van Ostern’s run as calculated political move to higher office. Supporters of Gardner, including five former governors from both parties, also expressed fear that Van Ostern could politicize the nonpartisan office.
Wednesday’s vote came on the state’s Organization Day, when its 400 House members and 24 state senators are sworn into office. With an average age of 66 in 2015, New Hampshire’s legislative body is the oldest in the country. But November’s midterm elections saw the number of lawmakers younger than 40 double.
Manny Espitia, a newly elected 29-year-old Democrat from Nashua, said in an interview that he supported Van Ostern because he believes “we need someone who will work to modernize the office and expand voter access.”
Espitia is one of 44 House members under the age of 40. He’s joined in the new class of representatives by Saifya Wazir, a 27-year-old former refugee from Afghanistan, who is the first refugee in the state to hold public office.