Lawmakers seek to restrict secretary of state’s authority

The Wyoming Capitol during the 2022 budget sessions of the Legislature. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

By Maggie Mullen, Wyofile

Wyoming lawmakers are considering removing election-related duties from the office of secretary of state.

The Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions committee passed a motion during a Thursday meeting to draft a bill to create a separate office to administer the state’s elections. The effort was in direct response to Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) securing the Republican nomination for secretary of state.

“I’m concerned based on some of the rhetoric and some of the mailers I saw in regards to our most likely upcoming secretary of state that we may be in a precarious position when it comes to election administration for the next four years,” committee co-chair Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), who introduced the motion, said.

Audits before and after the 2020 election in Wyoming indicated 100% accuracy. Gray, however, campaigned heavily on unsupported claims about voter fraud, saying there were “tremendous problems” with the security of Wyoming’s elections. This week, the State Canvassing Board certified the results of the 2022 primary election after an enhanced audit indicated zero issues across all 23 counties.

Gray did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment.

Lawmakers moved several other election-related matters forward during the meeting, including a bill to open Wyoming’s primary election using ranked-choice voting.

Election duties 

While the committee passed the motion to explore the possibility of having a separate state agency in charge of elections, the vote was not unanimous. Sen. Charles Scott (R-Casper) spoke against it.

Voters who supported Gray in the primary election would “rightfully feel insulted if we tried to take a major portion of the responsibilities away before the guy’s even had a chance,” he said.

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Scott also pointed to recent history.

“We’ve been down this road before in the education area. There was consequences [that] were most unfortunate,” he said in reference to former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill.

After Hill refused to implement legislation, Gov. Matt Mead signed a bill into law in 2013 that stripped Hill of most of her authority, rendering her position largely ceremonial. A lengthy legal battle ensued, with the Wyoming Supreme Court declaring the removal of powers unconstitutional.

Like most states, Wyoming’s secretary of state administers elections, which includes providing residents with election information. The office also prepares a campaign guide for candidates and collects campaign finances.

In recent years, that workload has ballooned in a very specific way, according to Monique Meese, former policy advisor to the office.

“Election records requests have become exponentially greater since the 2020 election on a variety of data points,” she said. Meese recently resigned from the position as a direct result of Gray’s primary election victory, according to the Cowboy State Daily.

When Wyoming voters raised questions about the state’s elections in 2020, Secretary of State Ed Buchanan spent a considerable amount of time traveling the state to give presentations on election integrity and security. Buchanan’s office also looked into allegations of voter fraud, but no evidence ever surfaced.

Creating an office solely devoted to election duties would address this new workload, according to Zwonitzer, who said it would also be able to perform additional audits, including of political spending. Currently, there is no automatic audit mechanism for campaign finances, so a review of filings only takes place if the office receives a complaint about a report.

“You’d be able to go after transparency when it came to dark money and really strengthen and buffer our election security,” Zwonitzer said.

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The new office would be overseen by the state’s top five elected officials — the governor, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor and superintendent of public instruction — who would also appoint its director, Zwonitzer said.

Voters cast their ballots at the Natrona County Fairgrounds during the 2021 Primary Election. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Primary changes 

The committee passed two motions related to ranked-choice voting — a system that allows voters to rank multiple candidates in order of preference. To win, a candidate must receive more than 50% of the vote. But unlike traditional runoff elections, ranked-choice voting requires only one trip to the polls.

Based on a pilot program in Utah, the committee asked the Legislative Service Office to draft a bill to create an option for ranked-choice voting at the municipal level for non-partisan races. Lawmakers also called on the LSO to draft a bill to open Wyoming’s closed primary elections by moving to a ranked voting system.

Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) brought the motion to copy Alaska’s system, which would involve the top four primary candidates moving on to the general election, regardless of party.

Such a system eliminates the need for crossover voting bills, according to Jenn Lowe with the Equality State Policy Center, a non-partisan group dedicated to state government transparency and accountability.

“There’s no need to switch parties when there’s no parties involved,” Lowe said. “The other wonderful thing about open primaries is it allows taxpayers, those who are funding these elections, to fully participate.”

Sen. Scott remained skeptical, partly because of concerns that ranked-choice voting ends up confusing voters.

“It’s too clever by half,” Scott said.

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Corey Steinmetz, a Wyoming GOP National Committeeman, spoke in favor of keeping a partisan system. No other officials from the Republican or Democratic parties testified.

Special elections

Following controversy and a legal battle involving the process to replace Jillian Balow earlier this year when she resigned from her position as superintendent of public instruction, lawmakers are looking to change how the state fills certain vacancies.

The committee is working on a bill from the 2022 session which would create, for example, a special election in the case of a vacancy in the governor’s office.

“I’ve certainly heard the concerns for six months now that we may want to have a better system and this [bill] is at least one option,” Zwonitzer said.

The more elections that are held, however, the fewer people come out to them, according to Kai Schon, director of the secretary of state’s election division. Another concern with the bill is the cost, which would be shouldered solely by the counties.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Scott said in opposition. Sen. Danny Eyre (R-Lyman) disagreed.

“I believe the system is broken, or at least we can do better,” he said, adding that low voter participation is preferable to the current system that involves political parties making appointments.

The committee voted to work together with county clerks and the secretary of state’s office to draft a bill that’s neither cost prohibitive nor disruptive to other elections.

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The committee plans to meet again in October.

UPDATE: Schon has plans to leave the secretary of state’s office and is looking for work elsewhere, according to his LinkedIn account. He did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment by press time Friday. -Ed.

 

 

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