Election judge Kay Kellner, who is seen behind a sneeze guard, works Aug. 11, 2020 helping people register to vote or cast early or absentee ballots in the Fremont County Courthouse. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Park County Republicans want to fix a voting system election officials say isn’t broken. In an attempt to secure elections, and restore confidence in the process, they have proposed adding a layer of scrutiny by hand-counting paper ballots. 

Election officials question the legality of the measure and continue to assert that the 2020 election was fair, secure and accurately tallied. But they also agree it’s time to boost voter confidence — the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center found that voter confidence declined in the state after the 2020 election.

The Park County conversation reflects a larger statewide discussion about election law. 

The Wyoming Legislature added a voter ID law in 2021, and more recently, created a felony penalty for disclosing certain voting results before the polls close. But those measures haven’t assuaged all concerns, which is where the proposal to hand-count paper ballots comes in. 

Wyoming already uses paper ballots, but in combination with electronic counting machines. It’s those machines that are problematic for some. 

“Our county clerk and the people that are working at that office do a marvelous job, they’re wonderful people and we have no concerns with that system,” Park County GOP Chairman Larry French told WyoFile. “We don’t trust the machines.”

The voting machines used in 2020 were more secure and sophisticated than any other voting machines used in the history of Wyoming’s elections, according to Secretary of State Ed Buchanan. Regardless, Buchanan said, election distrust is still a problem that needs fixing. 

At the Capitol 

As lawmakers reshaped election policy during the 2022 budget session, some questioned perceived weaknesses in the system. Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) tried to address some of the concerns in a measure aimed at easing part of the process for county clerks. 

After a record number of Wyoming residents voted by absentee ballot in 2020, lawmakers enacted legislation giving clerks the option to prepare and process those ballots the Thursday or Friday before Election Day. But no counting is permitted until the polls close at 7 p.m. on Election Day. 

Early counting could create an opportunity for election leaks, according to Neiman, who brought an amendment to include a steep penalty for such a violation. 

“If you’re out there messing around and you’re offering information early, then you need to be punished for it. And ultimately you need to lose your ability to be able to vote,” Neiman said as he was introducing the amendment.

Lawmakers passed the amendment on a voice vote, but several opposed it, including Rep. Shelly Duncan (R-Lingle).  

“If people are worried, or if different parties are worried, then volunteer to watch the process,” Duncan said. “It’s transparent, anyone can be in the room and watch it.”

Neiman’s amendment would discourage people from volunteering to be election judges, and clerks already struggle to recruit enough help, Duncan said. 

Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) gathers with fellow members of the 66th Wyoming Legislature (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

Public interest and observation

Residents in Wyoming can observe the process on Election Day, as Duncan noted. Transparency doesn’t end — or begin — there, either. Wyoming law requires public testing of voting machines before they are used on Election Day. And county clerks must notify major political parties ahead of time with the details. Clerks must also provide public notices

“No one ever shows up,” Converse County Clerk Karen Rimmer said. 

In her eight years as clerk in Park County, Colleen Renner said she’s had a total of two people participate in public testing. Given what she’s heard from some residents about election integrity, this puzzles Renner. 

“My first thought is, ‘You don’t care.’ I mean, if you really had an issue with something, wouldn’t you want to see how it was done?” Renner said. 

When Renner made this point at the Park County Commission meeting on April 5, some attendees heckled her. The standing-room-only crowd was there for the commission’s consideration of the hand-count proposal. 

“We’re not trying to unseat the machine. We are trying to prove the validity of our vote. That is our one purpose,” organizer Boone Tidwell told the commission. 

The Park County Republican Men’s Group initiated the idea, which originally called for counting ballots by hand before they are fed into electronic counting machines. Now, the group is asking to perform a hand-count after the ballots have been electronically counted. 

Secretary Buchanan, who attended the meeting by Zoom, cautioned against the proposal. 

County commissioners are not statutorily authorized to decide how ballots are counted, he said. Such a policy decision should be taken up with the Wyoming Legislature, Buchanan added. 

“Statute cannot trump my constitutional right,” Tidwell said in response to Buchanan. Tidwell was one of many Wyoming residents listed by a whistleblower group as a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right anti-government group. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Oath Keepers are urged to obey their understanding of the Constitution, even if that interpretation conflicts with that of U.S. lawmakers and judges. 

Until a court of law rules a statute unconstitutional, Buchanan said, it must be followed. The commission did not take any action on the proposal but asked its county attorney to review it. 

The Park County Republican Men’s Club on April 5, 2022 asked the Park County Commissioners to hand-count ballots in the upcoming election. (Park County Commissioners/Screenshot)

Partisan split

“Even though I’m a very conservative Republican, it’s not a partisan issue,” Park County GOP Chairman French said about the hand-count proposal. 

Park County Democratic Party Chairman Jan Michael Kliewer disagreed. 

“Our position has been made very clear that we support the present system. We have faith in it,” Kliewer said. 

Kliewer attended the meeting to speak against the measure, but the commission did not take public testimony beyond the presentation from the Park County Republican Men’s Club. 

“I don’t have a fundamental problem with them counting ballots and trying to regain trust of voters, because I recognize there’s a problem,” Kliewer said. But like Buchanan, he is concerned it would violate state law. 

The apparent partisan split in Park County is indicative of a larger trend, both nationally and in Wyoming. 

Leading up to the 2020 election, the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center surveyed residents about voter confidence. Some 51% of respondents told WYSAC they were very or somewhat confident that “the votes for the president across the country will be accurately counted this year.” 

In the days following the election, when a second survey was carried out, that number dropped to 48%. 

“While the numbers from the pre-election and post-election surveys appear similar, we actually see a lot going on under the surface,” Brian Harnisch, senior research scientist and interim director at WYSAC, said. 

Responses to that question showed major swings by party affiliation, according to Harnisch. While voter confidence among Republicans sunk after the election, it grew for Democrats. 

In a different time

Republicans in Douglas also expressed interest in hand-counting earlier this spring. When Converse County Clerk Karen Rimmer got wind of that, she asked Buchanan to give his election integrity and security presentation in Douglas. He obliged, and quelled some fears. 

“I was concerned [about elections] in the state of Wyoming until I became informed,” Converse County GOP Chairman William Tibbs said. 

Tibbs had been worried specifically about electronic counting machines. He changed his mind after Buchanan spent part of his presentation in Douglas detailing how counting machines in Wyoming do not have the ability to connect to the internet. That is often a sticking point for those concerned about the machine component of current elections. Tibbs remains skeptical of election integrity in other parts of the country. 

Secretary of State Ed Buchanan speaks during a 2020 press conference. (Michael Pearlman/Office of Gov. Mark Gordon)

The overwhelming majority of people in Wyoming trust elections, Buchanan said, but he added one caveat.

“A large percentage have questions,” he said. That is where his campaign to combat disinformation about elections, which includes public presentations, comes in. 

“We’re already trying to make improvements to our election systems, not because there’s been a problem, but because elections are now in the spotlight,” he said. “We’re in a different time.”

State statute requires county-level post-election audits. On top of that, Buchanan’s office is finalizing details for a pilot audit project to use statistical analyses to measure election accuracy. He hopes to have it in place for the upcoming election. 

“If people don’t believe in your elections, nothing else matters. It really doesn’t,” he said.

Maggie Mullen reports on state government and politics. Before joining WyoFile in 2022, she spent five years at Wyoming Public Radio.

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  1. The Park Co boys club is nothing more then a very few pretenders and poseurs that can produce nothing but noise pollution. Most of them don’t even own property in Park Co and sort of slid into town one dark night and proclaimed themselves the voice of the Wyoming GOP. Like their predecessors the Tea Baggers, this clownery will soon wither away

  2. The Park County Republican Men’s Group is nothing more than a bunch of carpetbagger thrillbillies. Nary a one is from Park Country originally and most have just shown up in the past 1-2 years. These ‘gents’ aspire to be big fish in a small pond but are actually a pretty insignificant group of pretenders and wanna be’s that represent almost no one in Northwest Wyoming. ‘Bout the best they can do is on occasion send vile and nasty threats to lady legislators. That little white speck on a piece of bird poo is more important than this cabal of pretenders

  3. Aww, the good old days, 2016. I distinctively remember Donald Trump (getting a big boost from Comey and also great help from his buddies the Russians) stealing the election from Hillary Clinton. I also remember Jan. 6th, 2021 when Trump’s trumpanzees stormed the capitol and attempted to steal the election from Joe Biden. Obviously the fringe republican whackos in this state are trying to steal an election again. What have you done to my party, GOP?

  4. I’ve been a election judge in three states over the past 40 years. I’m a Democrat but have participated and worked election in Nebraska, Texas, and Wyoming and honestly cannot tell you how many elections that I’ve worked in as a poll watcher or a election judge. Every polling location has been under control of the local Republican Party and without hesitation I can report that the leader of the all these polling locations has performed his or her job with equality and fairness without exception. When you take on the job as a polling judge you take a oath and pledge to follow the laws and treat each individual with respect and the dignity that they as a voting citizen deserves be they of any persuasion or political party. I done hand counting of ballots and I’ve used several types of machines and in every case each election numbers matched the number of votes cast leaving no doubt that the election was carried out and performed at it’s highest standards. The single incident that I witnessed where there was a problem came about in a Texas primary where a poll judge that also was a local minister at a church was caught handing out pre marked ballots to his parishioners as a guide. He was removed that day from his position and banned from working as a polling judge ever again. I worked with probably 60 or 70 different people throughout my career as a poll judge and while we had our personal preferences during the elections we all understood that a polling station was not the spot to displaying our particular support for a particular candidate. In Texas I would save vacation days each election cycle so I could take the day off my job just so I could work as a poll judge. That meant 4 hours after the Wise County Ag office closed setting up the 5 to 8 E-Slate machines each weighing 60 pounds and testing them to make sure they were properly put together and not fall over if someone leaned on them wrong. Then on Election Day the actual 14 hours of voting and disassembling the machine and returning them to the county clerks area where the results were tabulated and made public. I enjoyed the fantastic people I have worked with and although they may have been of the opposite party I considered them my friends and looked forward to the election so we could share Mrs Valences amazing enchiladas for lunch. The Texas E-Slate machines did not record a actual ballot and there were no physical ballots that could be recounted if the need ever arose and it did on a few occasions. Some offices were determined by as little as 5 votes. I prefer the Wyoming machines because you have a physical ballot that can be counted as need again and again to determine a outcome. The Poll Worker is the first line of defense against voter fraud and I can absolutely guarantee we all took this seriously and did on more then one occasion stop certain individuals from making the biggest mistake of their lives that would have cost them that very right to vote permanently. It pains me to my heart of the false, unproven claims that even today are still being made by those who have little regard for our democracy and our Constitution and eventually led to a insurrection, destruction, injuries, death and embarrassment of our country when broadcast across the world. There we’re over 100,000 of your relatives, your neighbors, your friends, old, young, veterans and just everyday people who job was make sure your vote counted. Without these people our democracy would fail and those that don’t believe in our Constitution would rue the day. The Putin of every county would the have the single right to enrich themselves and a few select others while the rest are enslaved!

  5. This group – “The Park County Republican Men’s Group” – also met with administrators in Park Co. school districts to propose bringing their partisan agenda into the Park County high schools; they proposed exploiting civics / government classrooms to endorse to their election-fraud delusion by having students participate in a hand-count exercise…
    I was present in person at a presentation by Mr. Tidwell and one other representative of the “Park County Republican Men’s Club” where they described their plan to bring their agenda of casting doubt about voting into the schools. The presentation was overtly political and incoherent: they presented only falsehoods and nonsense and could not answer a single question about the claims clearly or with evidence. It was extremely disturbing. Tidwell actually said (and this is perhaps not quite but almost verbatim): “Hand counting votes is how it was done for hundreds of years, not with technology – why not go back to that, putting our hands on the ballots?” It was almost unbelievable. This is of course disingenuous – not only the vote-counting machines but the vote counting system works well – but also absurd: charcoal was used for hundreds of years instead of lead pencils, should we go back to charcoal?

    We must do what we can to support our wonderful and sane elections officials (like Mr. Buchanan and Park County’s Colleen Renner), our representatives who understand that democracy is at stake when propaganda determines policy, and all the volunteers and honest party officials who make the system work so well.

    1. It’s a vehicle to funnel dark money into WY politics and not be bound by the statutory limitations of the official party.

  6. No reason to believe that hand counting is either more reliable or more accurate than machine counting. In fact, to the contrary, hand counting is far more likely to result in errors or miscounts, accidental or intentional. As usual, the Republican Party is engaging in another crazy conspiracy theory because they lost. Believe it or not, republicans do lose elections on occasion, especially when their ticket is headed by Donald Trump.

    1. Bingo, he claimed fraud even before a single vote was cast. Hmm make me wonder if he knew something we did not but then Rudy spoke up and I know I’m he had nothing!

  7. I truly wish folks who question Wyoming voting integrity would volunteer to be a poll judge or even a poll watcher for their political party. These judges are your neighbors who have given their precious time to make sure the process is clean and fair and we feel pretty patriotic doing it. County clerks work hard to recruit judges and also to follow the letter of the election laws. Many checks and balances occur throughout the election day. Machines are not connected to the internet at all. All the work of identifying a voter, double checking they get the correct ballot, and placing in the tally machine is done open above board and double checked each step by duplicate judges. Clerks also make sure both parties are represented in the judge duty selection. I, for instance, have worked several elections on the poll book to identity a person trying to obtain a ballot, making sure the information was accurate. Another judge reviewed my work right next to me. A poll watcher of a different party sat right behind me all day observing our every move and raised no objections. It certainly is a safe and clean process. Please have your own conversation with your election and county clerks before stating you have no confidence in our Wyoming voting process. The basic arguments have centered on the presidential election, but there were many other people and issues on our ballots and those results have not been disputed. The premise does not make sense. Please take time to educate yourself before the next election.

    1. Well said Lee Ann Stephenson! Maybe your response should be published in all newspapers around the state and sent to all GOP members ( since they are the ones who are so concerned).

  8. It’s the Big Lie (that the election was stolen), screeched by Trumpist Republicans across the country and in Wyoming, that manufactured and continues to reinforce this distrust in our voting process. I volunteered as an election judge. Our Wyoming process is meticulously clean and conducted with dedication and integrity. After all the audits and recounts, it appears the process in other States, run by equally dedicated County officials and volunteers, is equally legitimate. I may have concerns with other aspects of our election process, but I am confident that on County and State levels there is no significant ballot-box fraud. You’d be amazed at how many safeguards are built into the system.

  9. If you really want to screw up the election process, allow the County Commissions to set election policy.

  10. You cannot prove that the vote is valid, no matter what you do, when distrust is created for political reasons and is not based on facts.