SHERIDAN—Gail Symons was taught by her parents that she must always do two things whenever possible — give blood and vote.
Low hemoglobin levels have often kept the Sheridan resident from the former, but Symons has yet to miss an election. She doesn’t remember much from that first cast ballot in 1974, but she recalls a feeling from the elections that followed.
“It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do this or the world’s gonna cave in or whatever,’” Symons said. “It was just this feeling that it was important.”
Symons’ perfect voting record won’t surprise anyone who knows her personally or those that simply know her as a fixture of legislative committee meetings. She’s made a reputation for herself as a one-woman civics machine, from creating a voter education nonprofit to pulling up stakes for Cheyenne each legislative session to write a blog about the lawmaking process.
“Her vision to educate people on issues and candidates is unparalleled, really, in the state right now,” said Jenn Lowe, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, a non-partisan group dedicated to state-government transparency and accountability.
“She genuinely wants the public to understand how government works and how important it is to have an understanding of the mechanics of governance,” Lowe said.
It’s a sense of civic duty, passed down by her parents, Symons said, that has compelled her to go the extra mile beyond the voting booth.
Three days before she turned 18, Symons said she got her marching orders from her mother, Fay Symons, who was very involved in the local community.
“She basically ordered me to go over to the courthouse and register to vote,” Symons said. (Wyoming’s election code permits those under 18-years-old to register to vote if they will be at least 18-years-old on or before the day of the next election.)
Symons also learned by watching her mom navigate politics. When Fay was stopped in the grocery store by someone with a question about a ballot issue, Symons said she would never tell someone how to vote.
“She would say, ‘Here are the things to consider. Here is what the positives are and here’s what the negatives are,’ Symons said. “It was always even-handed.”
It is the kind of approach one can see in Symons’ own work — her blogging and voter education efforts are strictly non-partisan — despite the fact that she’s a lifelong Republican and currently a GOP precinct committeewoman in Sheridan County. But Symons said helping others understand how to register to vote, the duties of elected positions or how different branches of government work has little to do with one’s political party.
“I want everybody to vote,” Symons said.
Symons also got a taste for non-partisan work fresh out of the University of Wyoming when she was hired as a secretary for the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee. It was an education on the legislative process as well as a front row seat to some of the less technical, more human aspects of lawmaking.
“I could see the manipulations,” Symons said. “You could see somebody like giving the eye to somebody else and then they’d stand up and make a motion.”
The experience fascinated Symons and stuck with her as she left Wyoming for Officer Candidate School. She served in the Navy for 17 years before taking an early retirement. Symons also spent several years working as a manager for General Electric. But Wyoming was always home and where her voter registration remained. In 2016, Symons moved back fulltime to the family ranch in Sheridan County that remains home to this day.
On the ground
Upon her return, Symons said, several people asked her to run for House District 30. She made two attempts to oust incumbent Rep. Mark Jennings (R-Sheridan) but was soundly defeated in 2016 and 2018. Despite being defeated on the ballot, Symons felt encouraged to remain involved.
“It was in 2017, that I realized how difficult it is to follow what the heck is going on [at the Legislature],” Symons said. She’d traveled to Cheyenne for the general session as an observer and quickly remembered from her time as a secretary the many twists and turns a bill can take between introduction and the governor’s desk. Things can get confusing fast for the casual observer, Symons said, especially for someone tracking a bill from home and not the Capitol building.
“So that gave rise to the spreadsheet that I now post that tracks every bill through every step of the process,” Symons said. That spreadsheet was the first iteration of Civics307, the blog Symons writes to share her observations in Cheyenne and the latest action taken on any given bill.
Early on, Symons’ also blogged from most interim committee meetings — the off-season meetings in which lawmakers get a significant amount of work done. When that became too much, Symons shifted her between-legislative-sessions focus entirely to the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. That decision was also informed, Symons said, by an increase in legislation that either created unnecessary barriers to voting or assumed nefarious intentions.
Why not vote?
In 2021, the Legislature passed a bill requiring in-person voters to show a qualifying ID card to cast a ballot. More recently, lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to restrict absentee voting. But they were able to approve a bill to prohibit voters from changing their party affiliation during the 96 days leading up to the primary election — an attempt to curb so-called crossover voting.
The Wyoming Republican Party led the charge to put a stop to registered Democrats, minor party and unaffiliated voters from changing their party affiliation to participate in the primary election as Republicans. While Symons said she doesn’t approve of crossover voting, she believes low voter turnout is a more pressing problem.
That concern helped give birth to WyVote, Symons’ voter education nonprofit and website. Symons first set out to understand why thousands of people choose not to show up at the polls by launching an online survey. She received a variety of responses, including confusion about which elected officials do what and not recognizing names on the ballot. In response, Symons built out the website to include position descriptions for public offices ranging from community college board members to county assessor to coroner. Then during the 2022 election cycle, Symons gave candidates an ability to fill out a profile on the website. Symons hopes to expand WyVote to an in-person civics training program.
“She’s committed to the state and to her community. She really cares about what happens here,” said JoAnn True, a politico who lobbies alongside Symons in Cheyenne. (Symons isn’t a paid lobbyist but is a paying member of the Legislature’s lobbyist organization because, she said, it is the only place to get coffee at the Capitol.)
“There’s not a lot of that work being done in the state from a sort of broad approach around voter education,” True said. “And that’s basically what she’s trying to do.”
There’s often a barrier to entry for the average citizen interested in engaging in policy, True said. If, for instance, someone wants a stop sign on their corner, True said, it’s not always obvious if they need to show up at city council, the county commission or the Legislature to make their need known.
Symons wants that to be crystal clear for everyone.
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