Voters cast their ballots at the Natrona County Fairgrounds during the Aug. 18 primary election. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

State and county election officials say they know of no specific threats to the security of voters or plans for unsanctioned poll watching for the Nov. 3 election.

There are no plans for additional security measures beyond normal enforcement protocols, according to a Wyoming Secretary of State’s office statement. Election officials throughout the state are prepared to respond if there are instances of illegal electioneering or intimidation, the office said.

“In Wyoming, we have no reason to believe there are any activist groups that are planning to disrupt our polling places,” Secretary of State Edward Buchanan’s office said in a statement to WyoFile. “However, we have laws in place and a mechanism to enforce [them] should anyone attempt to violate the law.”

Neither the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security nor Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation sees any security threats related to the election or its immediate aftermath.

“Wyoming DCI is not aware of any potential demonstrations or plans for a show of force by citizens or militia groups on election day or post-election,” Wyoming DCI Director of Operations Forrest Williams told WyoFile. “I cannot speak for local law enforcement as to what they have planned but DCI will respond accordingly if needed.”

The possibility of demonstrations, armed shows of force near polling places or other forms of disruptive activity is on the minds of election officials in Wyoming and elsewhere, however. The Justice Department and FBI are reportedly preparing for potential unrest on election day. Comments by President Donald Trump during last week’s debate heightened those concerns.

Secretary of State Ed Buchanan

During the debate, Trump said, “I’m encouraging my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully, because that’s what has to happen. I am encouraging them to do it.” Asked by debate moderator Chris Wallace if he would condemn white supremacists and militia groups, Trump responded, “Proud Boys, stand back and stand by.” 

Some fear that far-right groups, including the Proud Boys — self-described as “western chauvinists” and considered a violent white supremicist group, including by homeland security officials in neighboring Coloradotook Trump’s comments as encouragement to make a show of force at polling places on election day.

The wave of Black Lives Matter protests this year included demonstrations in just about every major Wyoming town. Frequently, the demonstrations have sparked a counter presence by heavily armed citizens claiming to protect bystanders and property.

Wyoming Democratic Chairman Joe M. Barbuto said that although there are no specific indications of planned activities that might intimidate voters in Wyoming, he believes there is reason for heightened awareness.

“There’s certainly a lot to be concerned about, given the behavior and some of the comments by the president during the debate,” Barbuto said. “This is the United States of America, for heaven’s sake. No one wants to go to a polling place and see anybody standing there having to provide safety or security or stand guard over the process. That’s not something we’re used to and it’s not something we should have to ever become used to. It’s sad commentary on the place we are now as a country that we’re even having that conversation. But we do need to take it seriously.”

Rep. Joe MacGuire (R-Casper) is ward coordinator for the Natrona County Republican Party. He said he doesn’t expect any disruptions at polling places on election day. “I doubt there are going to be lines of people shaking signs and trying to intimidate voters,” he said. “We just don’t see that.”

Poll watching

Poll watching is limited by Wyoming law (W.S. 22-15-109) to one person from each political party per precinct. Designated poll watchers must be a member of the political party they represent and reside in the county where they serve as a poll watcher.

“A poll watcher is authorized to observe voter turn out and registration and may make written memoranda but shall not challenge voters, conduct electioneering activities or disrupt the polling process,” W.S. 22-15-109 states. “The chief judge may remove a poll watcher from the polling place for disturbing the polling place, or for any other violation of the Election Code.” 

Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee said poll watching is a specific activity with defined limits. “It’s to observe turnout,” Lee said. “They are not allowed to interfere with the process.”

People who are not certified poll watchers or not part of election staff, may not “hang around” a polling place to observe, Lee said, adding that such activity would also compromise COVID-19 precautions at polling places. She said election officials want voters to be able to come to the polls unobstructed, cast their ballot, then leave the polling place without interference. 

“There’s some common sense things, too,” Lee said. “You can’t obstruct people who are trying to park their vehicles and going in to vote.”

Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee

Former Rep. Marti Halverson (R-Etna, 2013-18) serves on a Wyoming Republican Party Committee that’s boosting efforts to make sure there’s a GOP poll watcher in more precincts. However, she said that does not include anything outside the scope of what’s allowed under Wyoming law.

“We are educating [GOP party] leadership on the importance of their role in the several opportunities they have including observing the voting machine preparations, the counting of absentee ballots, the treatment of provisional ballots, and recounts if any,” Halverson said. “One of these opportunities, also provided under state law, is to observe the activities at the polling places.”

Voter ‘intimidation’ is a felony

County election officials and local law enforcement are responsible for matters of election-day security and orderly conduct at the polls, according to Secretary Buchanan’s office. 

“We have laws in place that address voter intimidation, electioneering and specifically disrupting a polling place,” Buchanan’s office stated. “If there is any conduct that violates these laws, the county clerk will contact local law enforcement, if necessary to remedy the issue.

“Every county in Wyoming is equipped with poll workers that have been trained to perform their duties at the polling place,” the statement continued. “These duties include understanding the law as it relates to acceptable and lawful polling place conduct.”

Disturbing a polling place is listed as a misdemeanor, according to Wyoming election statutes; “Disturbing a polling place consists of creating any disorder or disruption at a polling place on election day, or absentee polling place under W.S. 22-9-125, or interfering with the orderly conduct of an election.”

Felony offenses include intimidation. Under W.S. 22-26-111, felony intimidation includes; “Inducing, or attempting to induce, fear in an election official or elector by use of threats of force, violence, harm or loss, or any form of economic retaliation, for the purpose of impeding or preventing the free exercise of the elective franchise or the impartial administration of the Election Code.”

Election judge Kay Kellner, who is seen behind a sneeze guard, works Aug. 11, 2020 helping people register to vote or cast early or absentee ballots in the Fremont County Courthouse. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Statute W.S. 22-26-111 concludes, “It is not a defense to a prosecution under this section that the defendant did not in fact possess the ability to carry out the threat made.”

Linda Fritz, president of the Wyoming County Clerk’s Association, said election officials are experts in Wyoming election laws and are well-trained on how to help voters and address any concerns that might arise. She said if there is a complaint or concern about intimidation or security that election officials cannot resolve, they’d rely on local law enforcement.  

“Each county clerk may have their own plans if there is an issue,” Fritz said. “Some are more remote, some are within municipalities, so there are different dynamics in each county.”

State law also outlines illegal electioneering — typically a misdemeanor. W.S. 22-26-113 forbids “any form of campaigning, including the display of campaign signs or distribution of campaign literature, the soliciting of signatures to any petition” and other forms of campaigning.

Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee said this also applies to voters wearing political T-shirts and hats within 100 yards of a polling place on election day — a common infraction, but one that election officials are obligated to enforce.

“We do ask them to remove them and some don’t take kindly to that,” Lee said. “We’re not fashion police, but we are obliged to follow the law.”

Wyoming’s electioneering laws also prohibit political bumper stickers on vehicles, allowing for only one 4’ by 16’ sticker per vehicle within 100 yards. Typically, people don’t complain if a voter’s vehicle violates the law by having two or three political bumper stickers, according to Lee. The intention is to provide an electioneering-free voting place, and that includes prohibiting vehicles adorned in banners and other large political/campaigning messaging. 

Polling violations are rare in Wyoming

Voting in-person on election day is typically a low-key affair in Wyoming. Lines are a rarity, particularly in small communities, and there are only a handful of election day “consolidated voting centers” — a single polling center that serves voters from multiple precincts that could experience a rush of voters.

Occasionally, there are questions and complaints that arise at polling places in Wyoming, Fritz said: Typically, polling place violations involve minor, mostly unintentional infractions. 

There were a couple of reported incidents during the August primary in Wyoming; both involved people collecting signatures for independent presidential candidate Kanye West, allegedly doing so too close to the polls. State law prohibits such activity within 100 yards of a polling place on election day.

If past elections in Wyoming are an indication, voting in-person Nov. 3 will be orderly and respectful, former state Sen. Mary MacGuire said. MacGuire (R-Casper, 1993-1994) has been active in the Wyoming Republican Party for decades and has long served as a poll watcher and election judge in Casper.

“Ordinarily, the judges are the same from election to election and everyone knows each other to a certain extent,” MacGuire said. “It’s a very open process.”

She doesn’t believe the president’s remarks during the debate will result in any disruptions when Wyomingites turn out to vote on election day, she said.

“I think we’re pretty level-headed people for the most part,” MacGuire said. “I don’t think [Trump’s debate remarks were] anything they didn’t expect, and I don’t think it affected them in any way as far as any activity to be concerned about.”

Wyoming Democratic Chairman Barbuto said he feels confident that party and election officials will remain vigilant to spot any potential plans to disrupt voting between now and when polls close on election night.

“We keep in close communications with the Secretary of State’s office and our county clerks,” Barbuto said, “and we’ll be visiting with them in the coming weeks as this election gets closer [to ensure] measures are put into place to allow voters to vote with confidence and without any fear of intimidation or other kinds of suppression.”

 

VOTER HOTLINES

— Wyoming Secretary of State: (307) 777-5860

Listing of Wyoming County Clerks

— American Civil Liberties Union: 1-866-OUR-VOTE

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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3 Comments

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  1. I have voted by mail most of my life. Thought I’d give in-person voting a try after moving here, 18 years ago. Once was enough. A precinct worker stared at me and scrutinized my ballot carefully before placing it into the counting machine. That was enough for me. I returned to mail-in voting and plan to stay there.

  2. I have a news flash for Secretary of State Buchanan… I was accosted at the central polling place in Cody four years ago, the Cody Auditorium. 2016 General Election. A man in a formal suit and tie in the lobby between the main entrance and the main floor was asking incoming voters about their citizenship, even asking them for ID and such . I confronted him, took a photo , when asked he would not say who he was representing or who he was answering to would not respond, so I said I would call the County Clerk . He skeedaddled immediately.

    This was four years ago, Mr. Buchanan. Given recent events , the prevalence of the airborne Trump virus that makes people crazy, and the emergence of local Anti-Antifa militia types in Cody , I expect there to be some voter intimidation this time around , too . Pull your head and silk tie out of the sand and engage in some due diligence, please. I am prepared to do mine. Again.

    I suggest that folks take a moment to peruse the excellent Campaign Legal Center ( dot org) website for a good rundown and suggested action items on how to recognize and deal with voter intimidation and election day mis- and dis information

  3. Once again, WyoFile addresses important and relevant questions – ahead of the curve!
    Thank you, Mr. Bleizeffer, for this clear and useful reporting.