Bill changing absentee ballot counting rules gets committee nod
CHEYENNE — At least one bill related to elections will be introduced by committee during Wyoming’s 2022 legislative session, while the fate of two other proposed bills is murky.
At a Thursday meeting of the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee in Sheridan, committee members:
— Voted to table a bill that would create open primaries in the state.
— Voted 8-5 against a bill that would have implemented ranked-choice voting. The committee will not sponsor it during the upcoming session, but an individual lawmaker could sponsor it.
— Voted 11-2 to introduce a bill that would give county clerks more time to process absentee ballots before Election Day.
— Advanced two bills related to creating runoff elections to the committee’s next meeting, where members will decide whether it will get committee sponsorship.
The open primary bill would have allowed a voter to vote for any candidate in a primary election, rather than being limited to the political party with which they’re registered. The ranked-choice voting bill proposed allowing voters to rank their choices for an office by preference, regardless of party affiliation, in both primary and general elections.
It’s likely that neither change could be feasibly implemented before the 2022 election, a representative from the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office said during testimony.
The third draft bill would give county clerks more time to process absentee ballots before an election, allowing them to count absentee ballots beginning on the Thursday or Friday before Election Day, if needed. The votes still would not be made public in any way and would not be incorporated into the total vote count until after polls close on Election Day.
Platte County Clerk Malcolm Ervin said the proposed bill was a response to the public, which is accustomed to knowing the election results on Election Day. Another clerk testified that they expected the use of absentee voting to grow, a trend seen in the 2020 election because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One person testifying against the open primary draft bill was David Holland, the vice chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party. He said he didn’t know what legislators were trying to solve by proposing an open primary.
The bill would do away with closed primaries, which Holland said would not reflect what Wyoming voters want.
“Throw this bill out and give us a closed primary, please,” he said, to a smattering of applause from the gathered crowd.
Others argued that instituting an open primary would eliminate the need for a primary altogether, or that they would rather see the Legislature get rid of sameday voter registration and the ability to change parties on Election Day.
Several speakers voiced concerns about “crossover voting,” or when a person changes political party to vote for a particular candidate in a primary.
Gail Symons, a Sheridan County resident who runs the politics blog Civics307, argued that an open primary would remove the incentive to cross over. She said the focus should be encouraging an informed public, as well as encouraging competition in political races.
Symons said that, in the 2020 general election, 63 percent of legislative races had no competition, meaning the winner had already been decided in the primary.
“That’s important, because only two-thirds of the electorate actually participate in the primary.
That includes 36 percent of registered Republicans who do not bother showing up for the primary,” she said. “In the general, 92 percent of registered voters in the state participate.”
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, argued the bill shouldn’t take up the committee’s time during a budget session, as it likely wouldn’t pass anyway.
Committee members voted to table the bill indefinitely.
A main argument against ranked-choice voting during the Thursday session was that it was too confusing a process. Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne and National Committeeman Corey Steinmetz testified that they’d heard from a clerk in Maine, which implemented ranked choice voting, that the process challenged elderly people, was too costly, and confusion over the process could deter people from voting, even with an education campaign.
A couple of others argued along the same lines, including Carbon County Republican Party Chairman Joey Correnti.
Sheridan resident Jackie McMahon and Johnson County’s Frank Pratt both testified that, although they may qualify as elderly in the minds of some, they were not confused by ranked-choice voting. McMahon called ranked choice a “computerized caucus” and argued that, while a two-party system distracts from issues, ranked-choice voting could help people feel like their voice actually matters.
Pratt said the voting method would encourage him to research each candidate more deeply before heading to the polls.
Vice Chairman Holland urged legislators not to rush the process by making the 2022 election into a false deadline for themselves.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, pushed back.
“The whole reason that this issue’s before us, from my understanding, was that the Republican Party came to the Legislature last February and said, ‘We have to have an election change, and we need something by 2022 because we don’t want another election without having a different primary system in place,’” Zwonitzer said.
Holland said he did not speak for the Republican Party as a whole, but he reiterated that a ranked-choice system doesn’t accomplish the party’s goals. He said he understood from the county clerks that election changes could not realistically be made before the 2022 election.
The draft bill failed 8-5 on a roll call vote and won’t be introduced by the committee during the 2022 legislative session.