Costly runoff races won’t buy state ‘election integrity’

By Kerry Drake, WyoFile

What do the Wyoming Republican Party and Santa Claus have in common?

They both keep lists of who’s been naughty or nice.

State GOP Chairman Frank Eathorne recently told the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee that he’ll be keeping a tally of where lawmakers fall on his party’s No. 1 priority — passing a runoff elections bill.

“It’s not just a focus on the issue, it’s a focus on the questions we’re getting through the party channels: Which legislators and public elected officials are supporting and which are opposing [the bill],” Eathorne warned. “And we want to know, and we’re going to look at all the different methods of measuring and evaluating votes.”

Was that a threat? Former Sen. Bruce Burns of Sheridan definitely thought so, and the 26-year Republican state lawmaker didn’t like it.

“I get concerned when I see the chairman of the Republican Party sit up here and tell you that they’re going to see who’s for it and who’s against it,” Burns testified. “Any legislator who is craven enough to change their vote because of intimidation tactics doesn’t deserve to be re-elected.”

When the panel met in June, it quickly said no to sponsoring a primary elections runoff bill. Instead, it advanced draft measures on ranked-choice voting and open primaries.

Less than three months later, the committee completely reversed itself. The latter pair of ideas died last week, and a new runoff bill brought by freshman Rep. Chip Neiman (R-Hulett) was sent forward for consideration at its next meeting by a 7-6 vote.

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What led to this remarkable about-face? Perhaps some legislators were cowed by Eathorne’s testimony and a parade of other Republican state and county officials who cited “election integrity” as the reason they will accept nothing less than a runoff bill.

Or maybe they just chalked all that bravado up to politics as usual and simply decided that it’s the best option for Wyoming voters.

Whatever the reason, a few issues are worth exploring. Can the party’s officials make good on numerous promises over the past few years to silence and/or punish GOP lawmakers who won’t bend to their will?

Is creating a runoff election system really the biggest concern for Republican voters in Wyoming?

And, most importantly, did the committee err when it rejected open primaries and ranked-choice voting?

Frank Eathorne
Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne testifies before the Joint Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions in Sheridan on Sept. 2, 2021. (Nick Reynolds/Wyofile)

Make no mistake: state GOP leaders have been motivated since their 2018 gubernatorial primary to never again let moderate politicians they denigrate as “RINOs” — Republicans in name only — defeat more conservative candidates.

Then-State Treasurer Mark Gordon only received one-third of the 2018 vote, but won the primary and then the general election. Two conservatives, Foster Friess and Harriet Hageman, combined for 45% of the vote but lost. The party’s leadership, which has been taken over by the extreme right, seethed.

Republican leaders charged that Democrats who changed their party affiliation to vote in the GOP primary “stole” the election for Gordon. They ignored official figures from the Secretary of State’s office that showed crossover voting was not enough to change the outcome.

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Eathorne made it clear to Republican lawmakers at the beginning of the 2019 session that ending crossover voting was No. 1 on the party’s legislative agenda. Sound familiar?

It didn’t work. The Senate and House couldn’t agree on a crossover voting bill, and numerous attempts died. So much for the GOP’s top issue.

Only one Republican legislator who voted against a crossover voting bill lost in the 2020 election. Former Sen. Michael Von Flatern of Gillette had long been dubbed a RINO for his moderate voting record. One seat does not a party retribution powerhouse make.

While Eathorne claims his members have been clamoring for a runoff bill for the past decade, Rep. Shelly Duncan (R-Lingle) said only about one-third of her constituents told her they support one.

Gail Symons, a Sheridan County Republican who writes a blog called Civics 307, said the facts don’t fit Eathorne’s narrative. While the party passed several resolutions since 2018 about the need for “election integrity,” Symons said, one calling for runoff elections wasn’t approved until this year.

That coincides with the incident that set Republican leaders’ hair on fire: U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s vote to impeach former President Donald Trump.

The possibility that Cheney could win the nomination for a fourth term in a crowded primary field started the runoff frenzy. Never mind that there was nary a peep out of the party when she won the 2016 primary with only 40% of the vote.

Neiman’s initial bill would have required the top two candidates in any race where no one won at least 50% to face each other in a runoff election, beginning in 2022. County clerks and the Secretary of State’s office said because of mandatory legislative redistricting next year, a new system could not be implemented in that timeline.

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Neiman returned to the committee on Sept. 2 with a revised bill that won’t take effect until 2024. Lawmakers will have to consider whether it’s worth an extra $1.3 million per election to conduct runoffs.

Is it good policy to spend that much money just to appease a political party that isn’t happy with the results under the current system?

At that meeting, the committee tabled a bill to create an open primary system, which would eliminate the requirement for candidates to declare a party at the primary stage and ensure that the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation.

If Wyoming Republicans truly want candidates who embody their political beliefs, why would a party that enjoys a 3-to-1 advantage in voter registration compared to Democrats say no to this system? I suspect it’s because officials are afraid too many “RINOs” would make it to the top two spots.

Republicans also panned ranked-choice voting, which gives voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference. If no one wins a majority, it would trigger an “instant runoff” to determine the most popular candidate, who would advance to the general election.

The beauty of ranked-choice voting is that it doesn’t require an extra election, which would save money. Unlike a runoff system, there would be no need to amend the Wyoming Constitution to implement it.

There’s no guarantee that the committee will ultimately sponsor Neiman’s bill. Co-chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) broke a tie vote to bring it to the committee’s final pre-session meeting, even though he expressed reservations about whether the Wyoming GOP is truly committed to runoff elections.

Zwonitzer noted the party made establishing a presidential primary its “No. 1 issue” five years ago, only to abandon the effort two years later when the Democrats got on board.

“It’s difficult to hear this again, that ‘we’re fully behind this’ when it might fizzle in a year depending on the election [results],” he told Eathorne.

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He may as well have told Eathorne to drop the charade. We all know this bill has nothing to do with “election integrity” or the will of the electorate. If one of Cheney’s challengers beats her by a vote but is selected by only one-third of those who declare themselves Republicans that day, we’ll never hear a word about runoff elections or crossover voting again.

Instead, a hearty “ho, ho, ho” will resound throughout the state, and GOP leaders will glow from all the election integrity they’ve given us.

 

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