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The Dartmouth
May 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Rockefeller Center hosts former N.H. Secretary of State

Former secretary Bill Gardner discussed election misinformation and the importance of public discourse in an event that featured many audience members’ worries about the state of democracy in the U.S.

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On Oct. 6, the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy hosted former New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner to discuss election integrity and online misinformation in an event called “Trusting our Elections: Making Democracy Work Amid Election Deniers, Misinformation, and Stolen Election Conspiracies.” Approximately 25 Hanover residents and Dartmouth students attended in person and 22 watched virtually.

The hour-long session began with government professor and New Hampshire state representative Russell Muirhead introducing Gardner. Muirhead said that Gardner was the nation’s longest-serving state-level Secretary of State, holding office from 1976 until his retirement in January. Before he held this position, Gardner served for four years in the New Hampshire state House of Representatives.

Gardner began by speaking of his career, which Muirhead said was focused on election administration and engaging young people in politics. In his time as a state representative from 1972 to 1976, Gardner said he observed the number of representatives under 30 more than triple. 

“Young people were saying, ‘well, gee, if he can get elected or she can get elected, then I can get elected,’” he said. 

According to Muirhead, Gardner had a lifelong conviction that young people should be able to exercise their rights as citizens. Gardner added that he “desperately” wanted to vote as a college student, which he was ineligible to do as the national voting age was set at 21 until it was lowered to 18 in 1971. In recent years, various state-wide legislations have been proposed to disincentivize or make it harder to vote, but have failed to curtail the voting rights of out-of-state college students. HB 1264, signed into law in 2018, for example, sought to force out-of-state college students to take on residency requirements of New Hampshire to retain their vote, such as by having an in-state driver’s license, but the New Hampshire Supreme Court found that the law would have “no effect” on voters.

“If a college student wishes to vote where they go to college, they have the right to do that,” Gardner said. “You should vote where you feel is your home.” 

Muirhead added that due to New Hampshire’s same-day registration law, all students at the College who are eligible to vote in the U.S. can register to vote on the day of an election if they show up to the polls with their Dartmouth ID.

Muirhead asked Gardner what would happen in a situation in which someone loses an election but subsequently says that the election was “rigged.” In response, Gardner said that it is important to clarify what a person means when they argue that an election was rigged, which can include claims of not only voter fraud but extensive donor campaigns. In light of such realities, Gardner highlighted the importance of protecting everyone’s right to vote.

“There are people that have nothing, but they have their vote. And if they don’t have their vote, or their vote is taken away… we lose,” Gardner said. “These are dangerous times.”

The session also addressed a recent New York Times article that ranked New Hampshire as the most difficult state in which to vote. For example, New Hampshire does not allow 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote, nor does it pay postage for mail-in ballots, according to Gardner. However, Gardner cited the state’s high turnout rate — which, at 72.2% in 2020, was the third-highest voter turnout among all states that year — as evidence supporting the ease of voting in New Hampshire.

One student in the audience asked whether the denial of election results should be protected under the free speech clause in the First Amendment. Although Gardner said that he could not answer that question, he underscored the importance of free discourse in our democracy.

“Talk to people — be willing to talk to them,” Gardner said. “Just because someone is saying something you think is crazy, find out why they’re saying what’s crazy.”

Muirhead ended the session by encouraging Dartmouth students to “get into the conversation.”

“Even if the speech you’re hearing you regard as mendacious or incendiary or toxic to the very regime that you love and want to perpetuate, engage,” Muirhead said.

Several audience members said that they shared Gardner’s sense of urgency regarding the integrity of U.S. elections.

Quinn Allred ’26 said he was motivated to attend the event because he is “concerned” by political operators who manipulate voting perceptions for their own gain. Hanover resident Rick Ely agreed, arguing that “the proper administration of democracy is essential to our way of life.” 

Malcolm Mahoney ’26 said he learned about the event in his class HIST 18, “The History of Voting Rights in America” and attended out of fear that the quality of American democracy is decreasing over time.

“With Facebook today, and just the role that big corporations and media play in general… it’s kind of scary,” Mahoney said. “Echo chambers are such a big threat to discourse — the death of discourse will be the death of democracy.”

Doug Teschner of Hebron, N.H., a former state representative and former assistant Secretary of State, also attended the event. Teschner, a regional leader for the Braver Angels, an organization that facilitates conversation across party lines, expressed concern for the future of democracy for his grandchildren and called for citizens to be more open-minded in their discussions with each other.

“Just because someone doesn’t agree with you politically doesn’t mean they’re evil. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid,” Teschner said. “We actually get people to sit and talk to each other. And they realize they have a lot more in common than they realize.”