Lawmakers mull major election changes

Nick Reynolds, via Wyoming News Exchange
Posted 6/14/21

Wyoming lawmakers are weighing a significant overhaul of the state’s elections.

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Lawmakers mull major election changes


Wyoming lawmakers are weighing a significant overhaul of the state’s elections.

On Monday, members of the Joint Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions voted to draft bills to create either an open primary or a ranked-choice voting system. Either system would profoundly change how Wyoming elects its officials and would likely have significant political ramifications, according to elections experts.

The decision follows months of pressure from conservative activists who have argued that vote splitting in Wyoming’s often crowded Republican primaries allows candidates to claim high-profile positions without first earning a mandate from party members in the primary.

In an open primary system — sometimes called a “jungle primary” — candidates from all parties compete in a single primary election, with the top two vote getters advancing to the subsequent general election. 

Unlike the current dual partisan primary system, in which each party holds an independent primary to select its candidate for the general election, an open primary can advance two candidates from the same party to the general, excluding the other party. Had Wyoming employed an open primary in the 2018 gubernatorial election, for example, the general election may well have been between Mark Gordon and Foster Friess, both Republicans, not Gordon and Mary Throne, a Democrat.

In a ranked-choice system, voters rank candidates in order of preference on their ballots. Election officials tally all the first place votes. If one candidate receives a majority, the election is over. If not, then the lowest vote getter is eliminated. People who ranked the eliminated politician as their top pick then have their second-choice votes distributed to the remaining field and the totals are retallied. The process, sometimes called an “instant runoff,” is repeated until one candidate has secured a majority.

The committee will consider the two bills, once drafted. If it endorses the measures, they will head to the Wyoming Legislature’s 2022 budget session for consideration. 

It is unlikely that either would take effect immediately. 

With the 2020 Census only recently completed, the Legislature is now just beginning the year-long process of redistricting, which county clerks have argued would leave them little time to implement sweeping changes to the state’s election code. However Wyoming’s elections director, Kai Schon, told lawmakers ranked-choice voting could feasibly be implemented in time for the 2022 election cycle.

Much of Monday’s discussion focused on implementing a third type of system in Wyoming: runoff elections. Though  conservative advocates have been pushing hard for a change to runoff voting, the committee ultimately ruled against it for pragmatic reasons like timing, technical capabilities and expense.

Runoff elections utilize multiple rounds of voting to thin the field of candidates until a single individual attains a certain percentage of the vote.

Conservative advocates — frustrated by the impacts of vote splitting in recent elections, and concerned about what it might mean for future elections like the already-crowded 2022 Republican primary for Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat — have been pushing lawmakers for rapid adoption of a runoff system. Donald Trump Jr., the son of the former president, even attempted to pressure lawmakers into supporting a shift to a runoff system boosted by Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, despite repeated assertions from the county clerks that such a sudden shift would be impossible to implement.

But a runoff system faces significant barriers, and committee members ultimately abandoned the pursuit of it. 

Implementing a runoff election system would likely require an amendment to the Wyoming Constitution, according to a memo from Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan. It couldn’t possibly be implemented in time for the 2022 elections, according to county clerks. And it would cost roughly an additional $1.1 million per election cycle to administer, according to committee Co-chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne.

Last month, the Wyoming Republican Party’s State Central Committee approved a motion by Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, to urge lawmakers to pledge their support for a runoff election bill. Neiman said a runoff system would reduce the impact of Democrats switching parties on Election Day, and told his fellow lawmakers that it was a key priority for his constituents. 

Data has shown crossover voting had little impact on the final outcomes of Wyoming’s last crowded Republican primary in 2018, won by Gov. Gordon.

“As this [U.S. House race] continues to take shape the need for party affiliation change and run off legislation has never been more important in my opinion,” Neiman wrote the pledge, which he emailed to lawmakers. “Seeing the potential for a candidate to go on to the general with far less than 50% of voter support also makes each parties (sic) impact on the other even more pronounced.”

Neiman’s tactics elicited the condemnation of several of his colleagues, who described the legislation and its associated pledge as an unfair “litmus test” by the Wyoming Republican Party. Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, one of the longest-tenured lawmakers in the Wyoming Legislature, said Neiman’s actions only caused unneeded dissension within the body. Neiman “made a freshman mistake” in compelling lawmakers to support legislation that had little chance of passing, Case said.

“I for one would like you to reach back out to the political party apparatus and say ‘this is just a little bit more complicated than I thought it was,’” Case said to Neiman during Monday’s meeting.

Neiman’s letter also earned criticism from his own county clerk, Linda Fritz, who said Monday she had previously told Neiman that a rapid change to runoff elections would be impossible for clerks to facilitate in time for the 2022 elections.

“If you didn’t sign this, you might have made the list,” she said.  

One lawmaker to sign the pledge, Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Torrington, said she was asked to sign under pressure from her local GOP, and later apologized to colleagues for pledging to support a bill she hadn’t read. 

Neiman rejected characterizations of his pledge as a “litmus test,” however, saying he was merely trying to gauge lawmakers’ support for the bill. 

“If there’s somebody up in your face and they’re that upset or worried or concerned about an issue, there’s a reason,” Neiman told lawmakers. 

“It’s a sad statement when we have to ask people to sign something, so we can hold you to it,” he added.

Others, including Neiman’s state senator, Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Hulett, described Neiman’s methods as self-sabotaging and unbecoming of the Legislature’s culture. 

“[For Neiman to] sit there and listen to the testimony from the Secretary of State that clearly this bill was unworkable and was unconstitutional, and then not be willing to rescind the pledge speaks absolute volumes,” Driskill said Wednesday. 

Neiman also alleged in his email to lawmakers that his constituents believe Wyoming’s elections lack integrity due to its de facto single party system, despite the fact election fraud is exceedingly rare in Wyoming.

Neiman and other members of the Crook County GOP declined to participate in numerous informational election events held by the clerk’s office explaining their practices and security, Fritz said. 

“[Clerks] have worked our tails off to make sure that you have good elections, and we have not heard one single, solitary, substantiated complaint,” she said. “The legislative body really needs to consider what laws you pass to correct something that isn’t wrong.”

Neiman did not immediately respond to comment. 

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