Amid heightened national and statewide interest in election security, four Republican candidates are pursuing the office that oversees Wyoming’s polls.
Secretary of state is one of five statewide elected positions in Wyoming, and without a Democrat running, the August primary election is likely to determine the victor.
The race comes as the office has taken on new prominence due to former President Donald Trump’s disproven claims that the 2020 election was stolen. Secretary Ed Buchanan, who will not seek re-election, has staunchly defended the integrity and efficacy of Wyoming’s elections.
Despite the claims of Buchanan and others, some of the candidates competing for his open seat are nevertheless running on a platform to secure Wyoming’s voting system.
Filing and finances
Buchanan announced in May he would not seek another term in office. Though he previously said he would run, he reversed course when a judicial opportunity arose in his hometown of Torrington. Thereafter, the race filled up with three sitting legislators and one political newcomer.
Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) was first to file, putting his name in the hat the same afternoon as Buchanan’s announcement. The next day, Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) entered the race, followed by Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) and Mark Armstrong, a petroleum engineer in Centennial.
Unlike Dockstader and Nethercott, whose terms aren’t up until January 2025, Gray will be out of public office entirely if he loses the secretary of state race since his House district is up for re-election. Before entering the SoS race, Gray was campaigning for Wyoming’s lone seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He ended that campaign in September 2021 with approximately $195,000 on hand, according to FEC filings, that he can now use to run for secretary of state.
How well Armstrong, Dockstader or Nethercott have been able to fundraise won’t be clear until sometime after Aug. 8, when the state requires Wyoming candidates to file campaign finance information for the primary election.
Wyoming’s election code is decided by the Legislature and it’s up to the secretary of state to administer elections within the framework of those laws, according to the state’s constitution. So while only lawmakers can change the voting process, the secretary of state could make arguments in an attempt to sway the body one way or another.
As administrator, the secretary of state provides election information to residents, such as how to register to vote or who and what is on the ballot. The SoS’s office also prepares a campaign guide for candidates and keeps track of campaign finances.
In this race, all four candidates have made election integrity their No. 1 priority, but differ among how they define the scope of the problem and propose to address it.
Armstrong has gone so far as to file criminal complaints with the very office he’s seeking due to his concerns regarding absentee ballots in Albany County.
The only qualification to vote absentee voting in Wyoming is to be registered to vote in the state. That’s too low of a bar, according to Armstrong, who said he only supports absentee voting for those with a “reasonable explanation,” such as military service.
“That any qualified voter can vote absentee opens the door to fraud,” Armstrong said.
In the 2020 election, a record high of 46% of ballots cast in Wyoming were absentee. County clerks asked the Legislature to ease that process for them in order to avoid error and provide results on election night. In response, lawmakers enacted legislation during the 2022 session that gives clerks the option to prepare and process those ballots the Thursday or Friday before Election Day. August will be the first opportunity for clerks to opt in to early processing.
Armstrong called the bill a “huge rewrite of the election code” and said he would push to reverse it as secretary of state. Both Dockstader and Gray voted against the bill, while Nethercott voted in its favor and carried the bill on the Senate floor.
Gray called it an “awful piece of legislation,” and had other critiques of how Wyoming handles ballots. Wyoming should ban “drop boxes,” Gray said. Similar to a mailbox, ballot drop boxes are secure containers used by county clerk offices to collect ballots. While the state currently uses paper ballots in combination with electronic counting machines, Gray said he would support adding a hand-count audit to the process.
Among the four candidates, Nethercott is closely aligned with Buchanan in refuting the idea that the 2020 elections were insecure.
Part of Nethercott’s trust in Wyoming’s elections comes from her time on the 2017 Plan for Aging Voting Equipment (PAVE) Task Force, which was responsible for helping Wyoming replace outdated voting equipment before the 2020 election. One outcome from the task force, Nethercott said, was the decision to select new voting equipment that does not have internet connectivity.
When asked if he believes the 2020 elections were secure in Wyoming, Gray said, “the answer to that is . . . there’s tremendous problems.”
Recently, he’s sponsored free screenings in Lander and Riverton of “2,000 Mules,” a pro-Trump film that alleges massive voter fraud. The film does not make any claims about Wyoming’s 2020 election, but speculates about five swing states that ultimately backed Joe Biden for president.
Trump’s Attorney General Bill Barr criticized the film during a video clip played by the Jan. 6 committee public hearing on Monday.
Part of the movie features video footage of people delivering ballots, purportedly as proof of illegal ballot harvesting. The photographic evidence was “lacking,” according to Barr.
In Wyoming, it is legal for another person to return a completed ballot on behalf of a voter. Although there’s no evidence this practice was abused in Wyoming during the 2020 election, the Legislature attempted to restrict it during the 2022 session by prohibiting any solicitation, gathering or submission of completed ballots without an accompanying written consent form from the secretary of state. Dockstader was co-sponsor of the bill, while Nethercott voted in favor of introducing it. However, it ultimately failed.
Gray would have supported the bill had it made it to the House, he said.
Armstrong would push the Legislature to do more to restrict absentee voting, he said, including banning ballot collection, since he has “significant questions” about how those ballots were processed in 2020. The 2021 voter ID bill also falls short for Armstrong who said he doesn’t think there are issues with in-person voting on Election Day.
Gray sponsored that bill, which is now law. It requires voters to show an acceptable form of identification when voting in person. Fifty-six lawmakers co-sponsored the legislation, including Dockstader and Nethercott. As secretary of state, Buchanan supported the bill. The law currently faces a lawsuit on the basis that it violates Wyoming’s Constitution.
Like Nethercott, Dockstader commended Buchanan for engaging the public with his election security presentations. But Dockstader stopped short of saying he believes the 2020 elections were entirely secure in Wyoming, opting instead to say they were “for the most part” secure. There’s also “room for improvement,” Dockstader said, adding that he would work with party officials to craft legislation to improve trust in the voting process.
When asked if he would continue with public presentations like Buchanan’s, Gray said he had other priorities, like “fixing the problems.”
“I’m not into the talk that we see a lot from politicians […] I don’t do that,” Gray said. Armstrong said he would have similar priorities.
Other responsibilities and limits
Supervising elections is perhaps the most visible duty of the secretary of state, but it’s not the only one. The office also oversees the business affairs of the state, including administering the registration of entities and acts as record keeper for Wyoming.
Gray, Nethercott, Armstrong and Dockstader all described priorities that they say would retain Wyoming’s “business friendly” ways.
For Armstrong, that would include persuading the Legislature to fund ongoing lawsuits concerning the commerce clause. He said this would enable Wyoming to ship coal to Asia and would boost the state’s economy.
To reduce any business fraud, Nethercott said she would work to strengthen the state’s role in monitoring corporate securities. It would dovetail nicely, according to Nethercott, with her experience on the Legislature’s Select Committee on Blockchain, Financial Technology and Digital Innovation Technology.
Gray has his eye on the secretary of state’s role on the State Board of Land Commissioners. “I’m going to ensure that every state land decision is handled with a Wyoming-first approach,” Gray said. The commission is made up of the top five statewide elected offices and has the final say on what becomes of Wyoming’s property. Those five electeds also make up the State Loan and Investment Board, which manages the permanent land funds, among other things.
Dockstader would “concentrate on jobs,” though he said that “maybe that would stretch the position somewhat.”
Like its election administration, the secretary of state does not have the power to enact legislation related to business. But the office can effect change in other, more indirect ways, according to Jim King, a professor of political science at the University of Wyoming.
It can determine what filings can be submitted online or what is required in person, and it can decide how quickly to process business incorporation papers, King said.
“And all of these things would affect business in some way,” he said.
The primary election is Aug. 16.
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify Gray’s campaign priorities. —Ed.