Lawmakers put forward about a dozen election-related bills at the opening of the Wyoming Legislature’s 2022 budget session. Five remain in play, including one that has garnered national attention, mostly for its implications on Wyoming’s congressional race. The four other pieces of legislation propose changes to the handling of absentee ballots, campaign finance law and what’s required of political organizations in Wyoming. Meantime, an attempt at moving the state’s elections to a runoff system has failed once more.
Senate File 97 – Change in party affiliation would prevent voters from switching party affiliation on primary election day. Instead, voter affiliation changes would need to take place about three months prior to a primary election.
In a press release, bill sponsor Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Sheridan) said the practice “has been going on for far too long in our state.
“Party switching cancels out the vote of the actual party members by those who wish to game the system and influence the outcome of their competing party’s nominating election,” Biteman said.
The bill is what lawmakers call “an old friend of the body.” It’s come up during past sessions, but has yet to receive the needed support. This time, however, it’s gotten the attention and the support of former President Donald Trump, who made a personal call to Gov. Mark Gordon on the bill’s behalf, according to the governor’s office. In 2021, similar Wyoming legislation caught the attention of his son, Donald Trump Jr.
“As far as specific legislation goes, right now the Legislature is doing its work. When it gets to my desk, I’ll begin mine,” Gordon wrote in an email to WyoFile about his stance on SF 97. Michael Pearlman, communications for Gordon, confirmed Trump’s call to the governor. The governor has also spoken “with many constituents” as well as David McIntosh of Club for Growth, a national conservative organization, Pearlman said.
Both the Equality State Policy Center and Civics 307 — non-partisan groups dedicated to state government transparency and accountability — oppose the bill.
Jenn Lowe, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, said SF 97 would remove a fundamental voter right.
“A voter should be able to change his or her party preference, as he or she sees fit, or unregister for any reason, when they need to,” Lowe said.
“Non-participation is the issue, not crossover,” Gail Symons with 307 Civics said in a press release. Symons pointed to the 2018 gubernatorial race, when the tally of registered Republicans far exceeded the number who voted. That total also eclipsed the amount of voters who changed affiliation.
The Wyoming Republican Party has campaigned heavily against crossover voting.
“Democrats should drop their registered Republican ‘disguise’ in our elections and promote their policies and their people,” one of several posts related to the issue on the GOP’s website reads.
The bill passed introduction on a 20-10 vote before it was referred to the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. However, after a series of motions in the Senate, first by Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) and then by Sen. John Kolb (R-Rock Springs), the bill was re-referred to the Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands & Water Resources Committee. The bill is on Tuesday’s agenda.
House Bill 52 – Timeline to prepare and process absentee ballots would allow county clerks to start counting absentee ballots the Thursday or Friday before election day. The bill is meant to address the rapidly increasing number of Wyoming residents who vote by absentee ballot.
Former Sublette County Clerk Mary Lankford spoke in favor of the bill on behalf of the Wyoming County Clerks Association during a Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee meeting last week. Lankford told the committee absentee ballots made up 46% of ballots cast in Wyoming during the 2020 general election. That’s a record high for the state, and about 20% higher than the previous election year. COVID-19 precautions no doubt played a role in 2020 numbers, Lankford said, but she doesn’t expect the trend to slow now that more people experienced voting absentee.
“They may decide that that’s … their choice of how they want to vote, as opposed to taking time off to go to the polls, or there’s quite a few folks in the state of Wyoming that work on election day,” she told the committee.
The committee unanimously passed the bill and it’s now being considered by the House.
A second bill related to absentee ballots is sponsored by Biteman. Senate File 96 – Collection of election ballots-prohibition would put restrictions on how people or groups can help voters deliver completed absentee ballots to county clerks. Specifically, it prohibits any solicitation, gathering or submission of completed ballots without accompanying written consent via a form from the secretary of state. Plus, the arrangement would need to be voter initiated. The bill also makes it a felony to violate such restrictions.
Like the party affiliation bill, SF 96 was withdrawn from the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee and re-referred to Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands & Water Resources after it passed an introductory vote. The move gives both SF 96 and SF 97 favorable odds to succeed since there’s considerable overlap between the sponsors of the two bills and committee members. For example, Sens. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne), Brian Boner (R-Douglas) and Tim French (R- Cody) make up two-thirds of the committee, and are co-sponsors of SF 97.
House Bill 49 – Election reporting requirements is meant to bring greater transparency to political organizations operating in Wyoming. Kai Schon, election director for Wyoming Secretary of State’s office, presented the bill to the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee last week.
“[Political organizations] are uniquely different, and they don’t function like a PAC or a candidate committee. And this bill seems to take into account their uniqueness in a way that isn’t egregious or unreasonable,” Schon said. The bill would require any organization that receives or spends funds in excess of $1,000 for the purpose of influencing an election outcome to officially file as a political organization with the secretary of state’s office. That must be done within 10 days of receiving or spending such funds, and must include a name and a mailing address. The committee passed HB 49; it is on general file in the House.
House Bill 80 – Campaign Reports-amendments also has implications for campaign finance law in Wyoming. It would increase the penalties for campaigns and political action committees that do not file an itemized statement of contributions and expenditures.
“An independent organization can buy its way out filing any kind of report by paying $500, and this was designed to prevent that from happening,” Ken Chestek said during a House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee meeting. Chestek is with Wyoming Promise, a statewide organization dedicated to campaign finance reforms.
Instead of a one-time $500 fine, any person or organization failing to file a report would incur $500 in daily penalties until said report is filed. The bill would also remove a current requirement that limits the reports to funds that were spent.
The House passed HB 80, and the Senate is now considering it.
House Bill 74 – Runoff elections was not considered for introduction after a required constitutional amendment failed. The bill would have required the top two candidates for Wyoming’s state and federal elected positions to participate in a runoff if neither received at least 50% of the primary vote. In the upcoming race for Wyoming’s U.S. House seat, it’s possible that a candidate could win the primary race with less than 50% of the vote since there are five candidates running.
House Bill 26 – Dual public employment and office holding as well as HB152 – Removal of political parties from elections failed to be considered for introduction. House Bill 26 would have prohibited public employees from taking elected public office, while HB 152 would have allowed any voter to vote for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation in primary elections.
Lastly, House Bill 142 – Vacancies in elected office would have expanded special elections to all elected office vacancies. Currently a vacancy in the office of the governor or Wyoming’s U.S. House of Representatives is filled via special election, whereas state legislators or the secretary of state are filled through a party nomination system. Critics sued the Wyoming GOP for the process used to replace former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow.
“I’ve always thought special elections are the way to go. You let the people decide, not some process,” bill sponsor Rep. Steve Harshman (R-Casper), who also brought the bill last session, said. HB 142 failed introduction in the House by one vote.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to identify Mary Lankford as the former Sublette County Clerk. – Ed