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Our state needs an independent secretary of state

Every four years, candidates for president march into the Secretary of State’s office on the second floor of the State House to pay their fee and file to run in New Hampshire’s first in the nation primary.

When you want to start a business, you register it with the Secretary of State. And if you are searching for an historical document or looking up a birth or death record, you may go to the state archives, which is overseen by the Secretary of State.

For most of us going about our daily lives, we have little or no interaction with the Secretary of State. But the various roles of that office are very important to New Hampshire.

The New Hampshire Constitution outlines the duties and responsibilities of the three branches of government: judiciary, legislature and executive. The constitution also enumerates responsibilities of the Secretary of State. It is the only agency within the executive branch where its duties are outlined in the constitution.

State Treasurers and Secretaries of State, based on part two, article 67, have their independence from the governor and separateness from other departments by being the only two state officials elected by the legislature. The House and Senate meet together every two years after an election and each legislator gets to cast one vote for a candidate for each office.

The reason for me to look into the background of constitutional responsibilities of the Secretary of State is House Bill 186 that was before the Senate Finance Committee last week. The bill draws a distinction between the Secretary of State’s office and other departments in the executive branch which are run by appointees of the governor. Plus there are those constitutional duties required of the Secretary of State.

This is a matter of constitutional principle. An example: if the governor issues an executive order effective across the executive branch to cut spending by 25 percent over a six-month period, should that order impact the Secretary of State’s office in fulfilling constitutional responsibilities such as running elections, maintaining state records or attending (assisting) the governor and council?

The policy of the legislature if SB 186 passes is that the Secretary of State’s office is not simply another department of government. Therefore, an executive order from the governor cannot reduce budgeted funds provided by the legislature to run elections which the Secretary of State is required by the constitution to supervise.

That concept of removing the Secretary of State’s office from the definition of a department in state government is in our current biennial budget plan. SB 186 would simply extend the same standard into the future without needing the intent of the bill to be part of future budgets.

Other than possible executive orders from governors cutting spending across the executive branch that might impact the Secretary of State’s office, I wanted to know what experiences there have been in the past of overreach by governors or others on the performance of required duties of the Secretary of State.

Our Secretary of State, Bill Gardner, is the longest serving secretary of state in the country, having been first elected in December, 1976. He told me last week about a story of a governor in the early 1960s who approached one of Bill’s predecessors with a list of towns. The governor said it would be helpful to his re-election if his name could be listed first on the ballots in the towns on his list. The story goes that the Secretary of State, without saying a word, dropped the list into a wastebasket as the governor watched. Who knows what really happened?

The story does help explain how important the independence of the Secretary of State is to our state. After all, he prepares the ballots, distributes them and retains them after an election as well as conducts recounts. The Secretary of State is the steward of our state’s electoral integrity.

Bill provided another example. In 1976, new to the job, he was asked for some state documents. He said he did not have them as they were part of some records that had been kept for about 15 years by the Department of Administrative Services. There was a subsequent call from the then Attorney General, David Souter, who told Bill the constitution required the Secretary of State to keep state records because Part 2, Article 68 reads, “The records of the State shall be kept in the office of the Secretary …” Bill’s office took possession of the records and maintains them to this day.

An independent Secretary of State is necessary if he or she is to fulfill their constitutional duties.

Bob Odell, a Republican, is the New Hampshire senator representing Antrim, Bennington and Francestown, among other towns.

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