(Tennessee Watson/WyoFile)

Why did some ballots in Wyoming’s recent elections tell voters to write in a man? The short answer: They shouldn’t have, thanks to House Bill 136 – Inclusive ballot language

The 2021 legislation amended the write-in candidate instructions on the ballot to say “write the person’s name” instead of “write his name in the blank space provided.” 

The 2022 primary and general elections were the first opportunity to print ballots with the new language, and not every county clerk remembered. Eight of 23 counties accidentally used “his name.”  

Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson) sponsored the bill after a conversation with a constituent who told him: “We shouldn’t have to assume that anyone who gets written in there’s a man, so why don’t we just make it more inclusive?” Yin explained. “And I thought, yeah, that makes sense.”  

The write-in instructions are now inclusive, but in contradiction to its official nickname, the Equality State’s statutes still use he, him and his. According to the rules of statutory construction that lawmakers follow, “words in the masculine gender include the feminine and neuter genders.” Or “he is a stand-in for both genders, or any gender,” as Yin explained. 

Take the section of the state constitution describing the qualifications to be governor. “No person shall be eligible … unless he be a citizen of the United States.”  

The statute on coroners does it too: “He shall take the oath prescribed by the constitution of the state.” It’s also “he” for Senate president, mine inspectors, police officers and the list goes on. 

Lawmakers know the statutes are not intended to exclusively apply to men, Yin said, but “I don’t think that when a voter goes in and looks at the ballot, they automatically think that he stands in for his or her or the person, so it made sense to just change it.” 

Not intentional

“I don’t fault any clerk for forgetting to do it,” Yin said. He’s confident that by 2024 “person’s name” will be on ballots across the state. 

“We missed it in error but it wasn’t [intentionally] uninclusive,” said Weston County Clerk Becky Hadlock.

“We’ll all have that language fixed for the 2024 primary and general elections,” said Malcolm Ervin, the Platte County Clerk. Sublette County Clerk Carrie Long and Johnson County Clerk Vicki Edelman expressed similar sentiments.

Sheridan County changed the language from “his name” to “the person’s name” except in one place, said Brenda Kekich, the county’s election supervisor. 

Equality state?

Beyond the ballot, Yin is uncertain about the Legislature’s appetite to move away from masculinity as the default — something states like Florida, Minnesota and Washington have already done. 

When Rep. Cathy Connolly (D-Laramie) presented a 2017 bill to clean up exclusive language in statutes — like removing “his” from references to firefighters and police officers — it faced strong opposition.  

As for the language change required by HB 136, its ballot debut coincided with a record number of write-ins. In the 2022 general election there were 39,134 combined write-ins for the six statewide races, according to Kai Schon, Election Division Director for the Secretary of State’s Office.

“That’s a significant number of people exercising their constitutional right to write in whoever they want for that office,” Schon said. 

In most counties the ballot invited them to do so with gender inclusive language. 

This story was in response to a reader’s question about elections in Wyoming. Read more responses here.

Tennessee Jane Watson is WyoFile's deputy managing editor. She was a 2020 Nieman Abrams Fellow for Local Investigative Journalism and Wyoming Public Radio's education reporter. She lives in Laramie. Contact...

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  1. Weston was among the eight that did not comply. There are some other unanswered questions in this last election cycle as well involving write in issues for an open Newcastle city council seat (if you’re really interested in untangling gnarly balls of knotted twine).

  2. I think using “him/he” in all the instances listed does send a subtle message, especially because when these were originally written that WAS the expectation that it only be a man (and there are many people who still think this way). It’s kind of a copout to just say “every place it says “him/he” just assume it’s everyone”. A simple “find and replace” would solve the issue if we are truly the “equality state”. Words do matter.