SUNDANCE — An interim meeting of the Joint Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee became the unexpected venue for a discussion of ethics on Monday.
Crook County’s two legislators found themselves at loggerheads over a “pledge” that had been sent out by Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, asking legislators to promise support for bills that would alter how elections take place in Wyoming.
While Neiman felt that his actions were part of his overall goal to promote the desires of the people who voted for him, Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, and his cohorts on the committee – and County Clerk Linda Fritz – found it unethical to ask legislators to make promises before considering the issue properly.
As he began his testimony, Neiman told the committee that he was, “Just trying to reflect the views and desires of my constituency.”
Run-off elections, he said, would ensure that candidates were sent onwards from primary elections with at least 50% of the overall vote.
“My position is, I want to see and be a driver and a pusher in seeing that this happens,” he said, stating that this is the case whether or not it can be achieved in time for the 2022 elections.
He shared that, while there are certainly political and practical considerations to consider, he believes his constituents “greatly desire an earnest and proactive effort in seeing to it that we exhaust all avenues possible to try to have this implemented as soon as we can, within reason.”
Neiman said that he believes “the vast majority” of his constituents would like to see this change.
Driskill, who serves as vice chairman of the committee, agreed that it appears the idea of run-off elections has widespread support. However, he addressed the pledge sent out by group email to committee members and asked if Neiman would be willing to rescind it.
“I, for one, didn’t sign it,” he said, saying it puts undue pressure on county clerks.
“The pledge was an attempt on my part to garner support,” Neiman responded.
New to the Legislature, he said he realized quickly that it’s important to determine early whether there is support for a particular issue to figure out what can be done about it.
“My plan was to see what is the response.”
It was not, Neiman said, intended to be a litmus test. It was to take the temperature of legislators and their constituents.
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, however, asked Neiman to appreciate that the discussion is “more nuanced than any pledge” and signing it would trap legislators into a decision that may not turn out to be correct, or even constitutional. He described it as a “freshman error” and called Neiman out for causing “dissension” when there is not yet enough information for legislators to make a decision.
Case asked Neiman to consider reaching out to legislators to admit that things are a little more complicated than he realized.
Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Lingle, said she did sign the pledge, but felt she did so under duress and was pushed into doing so. She described the practical concerns with runoff elections that are still under discussion, such as how they would be paid for.
Duncan said she was pushed into signing the pledge before she had even been given time to even look into the legislation itself, asking Neiman if he feels that was fair.
Neiman agreed he has made some freshman errors, but said the issue is about representing constituents. People in his district are “adamant and frustrated,” he said, and want commitments from their legislators to represent them in Cheyenne.
“They told me that specifically when I ran for office,” he said.
People have told him legislators “change when they get down there” and that they do not trust a legislator’s word alone and want lawmakers to make signed promises they can then be held to.
“You are one of us,” responded Driskill. “You’re not an outside group, you’re not part of a different group, you are a representative.”
Forcing pledges is what outside groups do, Driskill said.
“What we do is pledge to do what we can for our constituents.”
Neiman’s actions violate his own pledge as a legislator, Driskill said, as signing something to promise a particular decision actually prevents a legislator from doing the work they promised to do. Pledges are “akin to signing a blank check and handing it to somebody,” he said.
Driskill recalled a prior pledge that asked legislators to support the Second Amendment Preservation Act, a bill that ended up being amended so much that the sponsor voted against it. You never know what’s going to happen, he said, but constituents in this day and age can see exactly what their legislators are doing and why they made certain decisions – it’s even viewable on YouTube.
Neiman responded that he feels voters are mature enough to understand when a legislator’s final vote reflects the facts that came out during the course of working on an issue, and are still thankful that the legislator worked on that issue even if their final vote doesn’t go the way the voter wanted.
Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, took issue with Neiman’s focus on his constituents alone, commenting that “all of us legislators represent all of the people of Wyoming – all of them, not just the ones that elected us.”
Neiman said he agrees, but his first responsibility is to the people who voted for him.
When asked if he conversed with his county clerk, Neiman said he did ask for her input and she relayed all that has been said by the committee and those who testified. However, he said, he still has to come to Cheyenne and represent the people who voted for him.
Driskill responded that Neiman is not unique in trying to represent the people – that’s what all legislators are expected to do. He said he represents the same people and 90% of the bills he brings come right out of northeast Wyoming.
Driskill asked why Neiman would send a pledge out knowing, from talking to Fritz, that the idea he was pushing for was “unconstitutional” and wouldn’t work.
“Why would you put us in a position of signing a pledge on a bill that you knew wouldn’t work?” he demanded.
Though Neiman denied that his pledge was aimed at any particular bill and was just asking legislators to support the overall idea of reforming party affiliation changes and run-off elections, Driskill pointed out that the pledge names a specific bill.
Rep. Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne, shared criticism of Neiman’s approach, which was to send out a group email. He said it might have been more productive to do so individually rather than to put people on the spot and pit them against each other.
Following further testimony from election experts on the pros and cons of run-off and ranked choice voting, Crook County Clerk Linda Fritz was invited to the stand.
“I take issue with the fact that it’s discussing election integrity. I work with 22 amazing clerks, we work tirelessly during the election year to make sure that our elections are solid, that they are secure, and unfortunately when emails and things like this are sent out, it calls into question Wyoming elections, that are some of the best in the country,” she said.
Fritz shared her opinion that the pledge was forced on legislators through the implied threat that not signing it would see them labelled a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only).
“I feel sorry for you as a legislative body that you would be put in a position to sign something in order to be able to be re-elected to your position. I think that is uncalled for, it’s unprofessional and…I don’t think it is appropriate to ask you to do that,” she said.
The “integrity” issue that has been going on since the 2020 election, said Fritz, has been, “frustrating and insulting to any county clerk, because we have worked our tails off to make sure that you have good elections and we have not heard one single, solitary substantiated complaint that we have done something wrong. So until we hear that, I think the legislative body really needs to consider what laws you pass to correct something that isn’t wrong.”
If there are substantiated complaints, said Fritz, they should be shared with the clerks so they can be fixed.
“We take it more seriously than anybody else in this room, I can assure you of that,” she said.
In an unusual display, Fritz received a round of applause from the room for her comments.