Amid heightened scrutiny, heated testimony, and key staff resignation announcements, Wyoming lawmakers tackled numerous hot-button election topics Friday, including electronic voting machines, ranked-choice voting, primary reform, elected-office vacancies, campaign finance and the election-oversight authorities of the secretary of state.
None of the measures under consideration will have bearing on this year’s Nov. 8 general election.
The Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee voted to sponsor six measures: one to codify how the state certifies electronic voting equipment; another to allow ranked-choice voting in non-partisan municipal races; a bill refining the process for filling elected-office vacancies; two bills clarifying what information can be scrutinized by the public post election; and a resolution calling on Congress to limit or prohibit corporate campaign contributions.
Despite long-standing complaints about crossover voting in primaries and the plurality system that enables candidates to win with less than 50% of the vote, the panel declined to recommend any primary election reforms. Crossover voting refers to the practice of switching parties to vote in a primary.
“It has been 10 years that people have said we need a different primary system,” committee Co-chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) said.
“So the drumbeat remains that … the majority of our citizenry, of all sides, says the system we have could be improved,” Zwonitzer said. “We’ve just not been able to come up with something that we want to present to the full Legislature as of yet.”
The committee also surprised observers by dropping from its agenda and declining to discuss a bill to restrict the election duties of the secretary of state’s office. If that measure reemerges during the general session it will do so without committee backing.
It was the final meeting for several committee members who either lost their primary races or did not run for re-election. It was also the last corporations meeting for Kai Schon, director of the secretary of state’s election division, and Deputy Secretary of State Karen Wheeler. Both staffers told the committee they will stay on through the general election, but will leave before the new administration takes office next year. They take with them more than 50 years of combined experience in the secretary of state’s office and follow out the door Monique Meese, former communications and policy director, who left after Rep. Chuck Gray’s (R-Casper) primary election victory in the secretary of state’s race.
Much of the public testimony Friday underscored mistrust in Wyoming’s election system among certain voters, including Republican party operatives and candidates for office.
Audits before and after the 2020 election in Wyoming indicated 100% accuracy across the state. Some residents still question the results. Discussion grew tense at times with several members of the public telling lawmakers they had either witnessed or heard of election fraud happening in the state.
“I have had three different people call me and assure me that they’re voting in more than one state,” Wyoming GOP Executive Director Kathy Russell said. The three callers claimed to have voted in both Arizona and Wyoming, according to Russell, who said she did not report the three allegations of ballot fraud because she did not know the identities of the callers.
Matt Freeman, Constitution party candidate for House District 41 in Cheyenne, also told lawmakers he also did not file a report after learning of alleged election fraud in Laramie County. Sen. Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) said that’s a problem. “The minute you see or hear something, you should go report that,” Driskill said. “And if you don’t report it, it’s no different than watching someone steal your neighbor’s gas.”
Some commenters expressed concerns about fraud by hacking or other forms of electronic interference. Wyoming’s voting equipment is not connected to the internet and does not contain hardware or software necessary for internet access. Regardless, some residents told lawmakers they wanted the state to return to hand-counting paper ballots.
All 23 counties in Wyoming use paper ballots, some of which are handled directly by voters, others, like in Laramie County, which are produced and cast by touchscreen systems following each voter’s selections. Machines are used to tabulate the votes.
State statute prohibits the hand counting of ballots. A group of Republicans in Park County was denied a request to do so earlier this year.
The committee voted to sponsor a bill that would write into law the method by which Wyoming certifies electronic voting equipment.
Two out of Wyoming’s five statewide elected officials are temporary appointments due to recent vacancies. Both Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder and Secretary of State Karl Allred were selected by Gov. Mark Gordon from slates of nominees put forward by the Wyoming Republican Party, as required by state statute.
The committee advanced a bill to excise political parties from the appointment process. The measure was originally drafted to replace the current process with a special election. The aim was to let voters, instead of political parties, decide.
Right now, a vacancy of either the treasurer, auditor, superintendent of public instruction or secretary of state triggers a two-step process. First, the state central committee of the outgoing official’s party is tasked with selecting three nominees. The governor then selects an appointee.
If the governor vacates office, either the acting governor — who in Wyoming is the secretary of state — finishes the term or there’s a special election, depending on the timing of the vacancy. The committee’s bill would keep most of this in place, only changing the timing determinant from 60 days before a general election to 110 days.
“I think some reform in the vacancy process is extremely important,” Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson) told the committee, asking his colleagues to put themselves in his position. Less than two weeks before Allred was appointed interim secretary of state, he called Yin a “flippin’ idiot” and said “we need to get rid of him” during a GOP state central committee meeting. Allred will now oversee an election in which Yin is a candidate, a circumstance the incumbent lawmaker sees as a conflict of interest.
Following amendments, the bill wouldn’t create a wholesale move to special elections, as originally proposed, but does remove the role of political parties. In its current form the bill calls for a special election if more than half of the total term remains upon vacancy. If less than half of the term remains, the governor would make an appointment from a pool of applicants of the same party as the vacating official. The bill would apply a similar process to vacancies in the Legislature, calling on county commissioners, instead of the governor, in the event that an appointment is necessary.
The committee also amended the bill to have the state absorb the cost of any special election, rather than have counties foot the bill.
Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) opposed the bill and unsuccessfully moved to table it.
“I have real reservations about special elections. We’ve talked about the cost, but I think, more importantly, is you have a real problem getting a decent turnout,” Scott said.
Public records & campaign finance
After the 2020 election, the secretary of state’s office was “buried” in public record requests having to do with voter information and absentee ballots, according to Deputy Secretary Wheeler. In the midst of that, Wheeler said her office completed a review of related statutes and realized it was not clear what was considered a public document and what was protected under ballot privacy. As such, the committee voted to sponsor two bills that would provide guidelines for such requests.
The committee also voted to sponsor a house joint resolution calling on the United States Congress to limit or prohibit corporations and other entities from making campaign contributions.
Steven Klein, an attorney based in Washington D.C., testified on behalf of the Wyoming Liberty Group, calling the resolution “a radical bill to amend the First Amendment.”
Klein also dismissed a campaign-finance transparency issue brought to the committee.
In September, Campbell County Clerk Susan Saunders filed complaints with both the Federal Elections Commission and the secretary of state’s office against Coal Country Conservatives Political Action Committee. Saunders alleged a lack of campaign-finance transparency when the group mailed voter guides and placed advertisements for hundreds of candidates but did not file an expense report with the state or the federal government, effectively obscuring the PAC’s funding.
“What’s offensive about this other than the unique spelling of the word sheriff?” Klein said in reference to an apparent grammatical error while holding up a copy of the voter guide. “These have all the markings of people trying to comply with the law.”
The FEC determined the PAC did not comply with federal guidelines when it did not file a mandatory July quarterly report.
“The failure to timely file a complete report may result in civil money penalties, an audit or legal enforcement action,” the Federal Elections Commission wrote in a formal notice to the PAC on Aug. 2.
For six weeks after the notice, the PAC did not file a report. Once Saunders filed her complaint and news outlets, including WyoFile, reported on the matter, the PAC filed a report on Sept. 14. It didn’t offer much clarity. The majority of its contributions were listed as anonymous $50 donations.
“It’s clearly a move, in my opinion, to get around the reporting requirements,” Driskill said.
The PAC filed its October quarterly report Saturday about an hour after the FEC’s deadline. As before, most contributions were reported in anonymous $50 increments.
While the committee did not motion for a draft bill, Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) said he planned to bring an individual bill to “close the loophole.”
Neither Colleen McCabe, the PAC’s treasurer, nor Laura Cox, the PAC’s president, testified at the meeting.