Polling places across Wyoming, including the Natrona County Fairgrounds consolidated polling center, included extensive signage for voters' safety in 2020. State and county officials encouraged social distancing and face masks, and provided hand sanitizer and single-use pens to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 on primary election day, Aug. 18. (Dustin Bleizeffer)

Pandemic concerns, combined with worries over potential mail-in ballot delays due to cutbacks at the U.S. Postal Service, created a greater awareness of election processes and a greater sense of urgency to be counted, according to some local officials — with some unprecedented results.

Perhaps the most notable outcome of Wyoming’s primary was a massive spike in the number of voters who chose to cast an absentee ballot. More than 63,282 absentee ballots were processed, according to the Secretary of State’s unofficial tally, accounting for 45.1% of all ballots statewide. 

“We had more people voting before the election than on election day, and that’s never happened,” Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee said.

Absentee ballot use shot up in all 23 counties. In Natrona County, for example, voters cast 7,136 absentee ballots compared to 3,521 in the 2018 primary — a 200% increase. Laramie County saw a 571% increase in absentee ballots, according to Lee.

Wyoming voters who turned out to the polls Aug. 18 risked being exposed to the coronavirus at a time when Wyoming continued to see new daily cases in the double-digits. Yet, in spite of, or perhaps due in part to the pandemic, voter turnout for this year’s primary election was up slightly with a statewide tally of 140,038 compared to 139,809 in 2018, according to the state’s unofficial tally. There were 114,437 ballots cast in the 2016 primary election.

This year’s primary voter turnout increase is significant because there were no hotly contested state-level races. There’s typically a higher turnout in a primary election when there’s a gubernatorial race, for example, with a full field of GOP candidates seeking the party’s nomination. History suggests this should have been a low turnout year for the primary.

Several factors may have contributed to the stronger-than-usual turnout. 

State officials anticipated that many voters might avoid in-person voting on election day due to the pandemic. In response, Secretary of State Edward Buchanan mailed notices, which included an absentee ballot request form for both the primary and general elections, to every registered voter. County clerks also doubled efforts to inform voters of early voting and absentee voting opportunities — though many counties scaled back in-person registration events.

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. Social distance guidelines have been taped to the carpet. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

“It’s clear by the large number of absentee ballots, [voters] appreciated the opportunity to vote from home,” Lee said. “I think many, many voters didn’t realize they had the opportunity to request a ballot and vote at home.” 

The Secretary of State’s office also used a portion of $3 million in CARES Act funding allocated for elections to launch the Let’s Vote Wyoming campaign — the state’s largest get-out-the-vote effort in recent history, with advertising in newspapers, radio and social media platforms. 

“I’d like to think it did make a difference, letting people know about the process and giving people a level of comfort with the process,” Secretary of State spokesman Will Dinneen said, adding that the campaign will continue through the general election.

Dinneen also credited county clerks and candidates themselves for informing and drawing out voters.

Many things converged to prompt voters to better educate themselves and participate in elections this year, said Marguerite Herman, a longtime lobbyist and member of the League of Women Voters in Wyoming. National concerns over election security played a role, as did potential U.S. Postal Service delays, she said. Wyoming also celebrated the 150th anniversary of women’s suffrage this summer.

“All the buzz about voting, I think, was good and made people more aware,” Herman said.

Public-health measures

State and county election officials implemented numerous precautions to minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure at polling places. They picked larger polling venues, in some cases, to help facilitate social distancing. They decorated floors with masking tape and bright indicators to encourage spacing. Voters were provided hand sanitizer and single-use pens, and Plexiglass separated voters from volunteer election judges. 

“I had very good reports from the vote centers about the measures we’d taken. People felt safe,” said Lee.

Stickers on the floor direct Albany County voters to keep 6 feet of distance as they wait in line to vote. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Although face masks were required for volunteer judges and election staff, voters were only encouraged to wear masks. Compliance with the face mask recommendation was “good” among voters, but definitely not 100%, according to a handful of polling managers in Casper. 

During the lunch hour at the Restoration Church polling center in Casper, WyoFile witnessed two couples — acquaintances — visiting outside the polling area. One couple was masked, the other was not. Both were trying to understand the other’s rationale.

No major incidents regarding the COVID-19 safety measures were reported.

“We’ve taken a lot of steps this year, given the pandemic, to make for a safe election season for Wyoming citizens,” Secretary of State Edward Buchanan said in a press conference the day before Wyoming’s primary election. “We have tried to accommodate and make some changes where necessary to ensure that everybody has the opportunity to vote safely and in the manner they choose.”

In Natrona County, like all communities, coronavirus concerns did keep many regular election volunteers from serving this year, Natrona County Clerk Tracy Good said. Many volunteers are older and among the most prone to suffering severe and fatal complications from COVID-19. The county managed to “barely” recruit enough volunteers, she said.

“I was extremely happy with how things turned out given what we were presented with,” Good said. “We were given adequate PPE, and I felt we were adequately suited up.” 

Lessons learned

Secretary Buchanan said the state’s guidelines for health and safety regarding COVID-19 will be replicated for the general election on Nov. 3. The state will again provide PPE and other supporting resources to all 23 counties.

Several election officials in Wyoming said they suspect that this year’s unusual circumstances, and a heightened awareness of voting options, might lead to a continuation of early voting and absentee voting. If that’s the case, Dinneen of the Secretary of State’s office said, it should not require major overhauls of Wyoming’s voter laws and practices.

However, others say the coronavirus pandemic has revealed weaknesses in Wyoming’s election system and further opportunities for improvement.

Polling centers were decorated with stickers and other indicators to encourage social distancing during the primary election Aug. 18. State and county officials plan to replicate COVID-19 safety measures for the general election on Nov. 3. (Dustin Bleizeffer)

For example, county election offices are not allowed to begin counting absentee ballots until the close of voting on election day. This year, with the influx of absentee ballots, a handful of counties requested an exception to the rule, which the state granted. Laramie County, and others, were allowed to begin counting absentee ballots for two days the week before the primary election — under strict guidance.

Those counties were required to notify local party leaders and call in witnesses, which is common practice in vote counting. 

“I don’t know what we would have done had we not gotten those extra two days,” said Lee, who added that Laramie County live-streamed their process. “We might still be counting.”

Wyoming might benefit, and avoid reporting delays, by allowing early tallying of absentee voting on a regular basis. 

The state’s public notification that absentee ballots may be requested until the day before an election might give voters the wrong impression about when absentee ballots must be received, Lee said. Ballots must be received by the day of the election — a deadline voters would likely miss if they wait to request an absentee ballot the day, or week, before an election.

The pandemic has also put a strain on county clerks’ offices to recruit enough volunteers — many of whom are older. Herman, of the League of Women Voters, said she hopes that circumstances motivate more Wyomingites to volunteer for elections, as her husband George Powers did for the first time this year.

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Herman said the primary election provides a lot of good lessons for improving voter access in Wyoming. However, she suspects that after the pandemic, many who voted early or by absentee ballot this year might be eager to return to the polls when there isn’t a deadly public health risk.

“A lot of my friends enjoy voting on election day in the spirit of civic engagement. But maybe this is the new normal,” she said. 

This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 20 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily covering the energy industry in Wyoming. Most recently he was Communications...

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  1. I cannot speak for the rest of the state, but was very unhappy with my experience voting here in Converse County. Having seen the slow-down in mail delivery here, I made the decision to take my absentee ballot to my polling station in Glenrock, and deposit it in what I assumed would be there–a drop in box for ballots. The first unpleasant surprise, there was no drop-in ballot box in Glenrock. I stood for several minutes just in the doorway, hoping to talk to an election official–second surprise, there was no one working that I could see, wearing a mask, volunteer or official. Additionally, no one was practicing social distancing, When I finally spoke to an election judge, (maskless, who stood less than an arm’s length from me) that I could not drop off my ballot, or personally run my ballot thru a machine–I was deemed to have already voted. (This with my ballot in my hand!) So, I drove from Glenrock to Douglas, where I managed to stumble over the drop-in ballot box by the courthouse. (No one in Glenrock knew where the rumoured box was in Douglas.) Altogether, not a good experience!

  2. Judy Knight, Laramie WY: A Statewide Voter Guide will be available on VOTE411.org as soon as Congressional and Wyoming Legislative candidates provide their responses. Candidates in all other races in Laramie and Albany Counties will also be invited to participate in this service provided by the League of Women Voters. Thanks to WyoFile for getting the facts out about participation in the Primary, Wyoming voters can do even better in the General Election — let’s have the highest percentage of registered voter turnout of any state in the country on November 3. And remember that residents can register by mail by requesting a registration form from their County Clerk now. Even if it’s close to Election Day, County Clerks can explain how to register and vote if you call or visit them in person with proper ID.

  3. One thing the media could do to help absentee voters is to get out information about candidates and issues earlier.