Judge deems Wyo’s polling-place buffer zones unconstitutional

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

By Nick Reynolds, WyoFile

U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Freudenthal ruled last week that Wyoming’s ban on electioneering within 100 yards of a polling place on election day violates the First Amendment.

Why it matters: The decision likely nets advocacy groups and political campaigns greater leeway in how they interact with the voting public.

The case, Frank v. Buchanan, was brought by activists who wished to campaign and gather signatures in high-visibility areas for voters — in this case, polling places.

Previously, those engaging in electioneering activities had to stand at least 300 feet from those polling places, well out of view of voters. Now, the Wyoming Legislature will likely need to change the law.

History: While Wyoming’s buffer zone on absentee and early voting days is just 100 feet — and judged to be constitutional by Freudenthal — the state’s 100-yard zone for election day is similar to those struck down by courts elsewhere.

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In Kentucky, for instance, a Sixth Circuit court judge ruled a300-foot buffer unconstitutional in 2015 after the plaintiff successfully argued the size of the zone was arbitrary, and that there was no compelling interest to back it up.

Wyoming, which had a buffer zone of 60 feet before extensive election reforms in 1973, has faced similar challenges before. A 1988 lawsuit, NBC v. Karpan, forced the Legislature to allow exit polls within the buffer zone after an outright ban was found to be unconstitutional, for example.

Don Wills, an independent candidate for governor in recent decades, challenged the state’s 100-yard law following the 2014 election after finding it difficult to break through to voters. That action prompted renewed interest in those zones.

Legislative reform efforts in the last decade — led by attorneys aligned with the Wyoming Liberty Group — were unsuccessful. That led to Stephen Klein, a former Liberty Group attorney, filing a suit against the state last fall.

“We really did try to fix this legislatively,” Klein said.

While the ruling invalidated the state’s 100-yard zone rule, the court did uphold Wyoming’s 100-foot buffer around polling places on absentee balloting days.

“This is not a complete victory,” Klein said

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What’s next: Should Freudenthal’s ruling stand up through the appeal process, the Legislature would more than likely need to change the law.

The Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office would administer any changes.

“We welcome the opportunity to have laws tested in court if someone believes them to be unconstitutional, as that is precisely the type of checks and balance system that is built into the Constitution,” Monique Meese, a spokesperson for the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office, wrote in an email.

 

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.