It may not be an election year, but Wyoming lawmakers have voting and campaigning on the brain.
The Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee will consider half a dozen measures Thursday aimed at updating the state’s election laws. Two bills would create or clarify residency requirements to vote or run for the statehouse, another would mandate reporting for certain electioneering communications.
“They’re all pretty minor changes,” said committee Chairman Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander).
But they may not be without controversy. One bill would ban private funding for election administration, or what has come to be known as “Zuck bucks,” in reference to billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s election-related charity in 2020. Another would revise some of the Legislature’s most recent work related to political party affiliation.
The committee may thin out the herd by combining bills, Case said, which could be a critical move ahead of a budget session when non-budget bills have a higher introductory hurdle to clear. Nonetheless, some committee members are concerned about making too many changes ahead of the next election.
“There’s a lot of bills, so I do worry about whether all of the voters in Wyoming will be up to date for the next round of elections if we make more changes,” said Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson).
In a years-long, hard-fought battle, Republican lawmakers who sought to limit so-called crossover voting by restricting how and when Wyoming voters may affiliate with a political party were victorious this spring.
Voters are now prohibited from affiliating with a party during the 96 days immediately preceding the primary election. Leading the charge on the prohibition, the Wyoming Republican Party said it was intended to stop registered Democrats, minor party and unaffiliated voters from changing their party affiliation in order to participate in the primary election as Republicans.
Despite having concerns about unintended consequences, Gov. Mark Gordon signed the bill into law in March.
“What was delivered to my desk has ambiguity with the potential to deny participation in a major party election in a few limited circumstances,” Gordon wrote in a letter to House Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale).
More specifically, some lawmakers raised concerns about the bill inadvertently restricting someone from registering to vote who had turned 18 during the blackout period. An amendment to prevent that potential mishap failed in the Senate.
“That said, the bill’s sponsor assured me that was not his intent,” Gordon wrote. “Furthermore, he and those who will be responsible for implementing the statute have agreed to work on clarifying the legal ambiguity before the next primary election.”
The measure now up for the committee’s consideration is that clarification.
It would make an exception for someone who has not registered to vote in Wyoming during the year prior. Those residents would retain the ability to declare a party affiliation for the primary election during the blackout period.
At the behest of Secretary of State Chuck Gray, the committee will consider creating a 30-day residency requirement for voters.
Under current state law, voters are only required to be a “bona fide resident” of the state, along with other qualifications. Gray told the committee in May that a durational residency requirement would provide much-needed clarity “as to who can vote and in what situations they can register.”
The measure may face some legal hurdles. In 1972, the Wyoming Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Wyoming Constitution that required one year of residency to vote.
The County Clerks’ Association of Wyoming told WyoFile in May that it did not have a position on the bill and was “looking to see how other states administer their durational residency requirements” to “provide the committee with as much information as possible.
“As always, we do not have a policy stance, only an administrative one.”
Federal law prohibits durational residential requirements for presidential elections, which raised concerns at the May meeting for Sen. Charles Scott about the potential for needing bifurcated ballots. Gray said that was one more reason for the committee to dedicate time to “delve into” the issue at its August meeting.
“I don’t understand why we’re trying to make it harder for people to vote,” Yin told WyoFile. “If someone wants to live in Wyoming, why wouldn’t we want them to vote?”
The committee will also consider a measure to clarify the residency requirement for legislative candidates.
Currently state law only requires a person to live in their legislative district for one year “next preceding his election.” The statute does not specify whether that means the primary or general election, so the language in the measure would clarify that to mean the latter.
Campaign and election contributions
“While Wyoming law does not presently ban private funding of elections, I have asked the Joint Corporations, Elections, and Political Subdivisions Committee to draft legislation addressing this concern and that bill will be discussed on August 24,” Gray wrote in an Aug. 10 letter to county clerks.
The measure would prohibit government and election officials from soliciting, taking or otherwise accepting private funds to conduct elections. It would also create a felony offense, punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, “local election officials faced unexpected expenses for absentee ballot mailing and processing and larger in-person voting facilities that could accommodate social distancing,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In response, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan provided $400 million to the Center for Tech and Civic Life to be distributed to election offices across the country.
Republicans have been critical of the funding but election offices across the country say they couldn’t have carried out the 2020 election without it.
None of that funding went to Wyoming. But legislation is needed, Gray said, to prevent it from happening in the future.
“I feel it is my duty as Secretary of State to warn all 23 county clerks, and caution against accepting any money from third parties,” Gray wrote in his letter. “It is also very important that Wyoming take action to statutorily ban private funding of election administration.”
As for campaign funding, lawmakers will review a resolution intended for congress regarding corporations and campaign contributions. The committee will also consider a measure to clarify when two or more people are required to file as an organization for purposes of campaign reporting.
The committee meets at 8:30 a.m. Thursday and Friday in Douglas. It will be streamed online. Members will also discuss poll watchers and voter intimidation.