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.
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.
“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.
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.