Doug Gerard: Wyoming Elections Need Updated, But We Need To Do It Right

in Column/Doug Gerard

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By Doug Gerard, guest columnist

It’s time Wyoming got a government that prioritized the goals of everyday Wyoming citizens, specifically reduced spending, reducing old and preventing new taxes, all while protecting the individual’s rights.

Our current legislature didn’t do what the people wanted in the special session. Worse still, a sizeable minority of the Republicans in the Wyoming legislature often vote against the Wyoming Republican platform.  

In the wake of the Wyoming GOP decision to no longer recognize Rep. Liz Cheney as Republican, it points out one of the most significant flaws in Wyoming politics, namely lawmakers are not responsible to the party they represent in any way.   

Something has to change.

Our current candidate system assumes a candidate has the party’s support for which the candidate has registered as a voter. It’s crazy to think it, but if Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, or Liz Cheney could move to Wyoming, register as Republicans, and then run for office as Republicans. No one, not the Secretary of State, or the Wyoming Republican Party, could do anything to stop it.  

As proof, recently, even with the Wyoming GOP disavowal of Rep. Cheney, her name will still have the ‘R’ next to it on the 2022 ballot if she decides to run and is still a registered Republican.  

Wyoming’s other election problem is its overreliance on primary elections. Wyoming primaries have two flaws. To start, far too often, Wyoming ends up electing a candidate in the primary that most primary voters didn’t select. To make matters worse, with each passing election, a growing number of general election races are uncontested. The 2020 election saw 61% of legislative offices with only one candidate in the general election.

Examine the results of our past elections. In the 2010 gubernatorial election, Matt Mead won 23.3% of the over 100,000 Republican primary votes cast. The 2016 US House Republican primary election saw Liz Cheney elected with only 39.9% of the vote. In the 2018 gubernatorial election, Mark Gordon achieved his Republican primary victory with 33.4% of over 116,000 primary votes cast.  

In each of these examples, the primary winner had more than 60% of Republicans voting against them. Even though they won a plurality, they didn’t win a majority and, consequently, shouldn’t be the victor. If runoffs were in place, perhaps Wyoming could have avoided Governor Mead’s SF-104 debacle, Governor Gordon’s mask mandates, and Rep. Cheney voting to impeach President Trump.

The Republican grassroots have been advocating for a change to Wyoming elections for many years. Only since Rep. Cheney’s infuriating impeachment vote has the movement gained any traction. Sophomore legislator Chip Neiman-(R, HD-1, Crook/Westin) has heard the people in his district and is doggedly pursuing a runoff election bill.

The runoff election is a good idea, one that I support. But, what if we are solving the wrong problem?

Since 2010 we have seen an alarming trend where an increasing amount of legislative races in the general election are uncontested. In 2020 61% of the legislative polls went uncontested in the general election. 

A primary sees roughly half the voters of a general election, meaning a well-organized minority has the opportunity to use the primary election to their advantage and force their minority view.  

I firmly believe that the largest group of voters should elect our legislators and should have a choice to make when voting. We should have at least two candidates for each statewide office and every legislative seat in the general election. Every voter, not just motivated primary voters, deserves to have a choice in the general election.

Can these problems be fixed? I think they can, and the fix is simple. 

First, let’s switch to a top-two candidate primary, and second, let political parties decide which candidates they endorse.  

We need to seriously consider a top-two primary where the two largest vote earners advance to the general election regardless of party. A top-two primary puts all the candidates in a single primary and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, move on to the general election. 

The most significant objection to top-two primaries is it can lead to one-party rule. While it is a fair observation, it is one without distinction. Wyoming effectively has one-party control under the Republicans anyway. Nationally, Democrats continue to drift further away from the common-sense family values most Wyoming citizens’ hold dear.  This leaves Republicans as the only viable choice, in effect, ceding Republican one-party rule.

Lettings the political parties decide who carries their party flag in the election is relatively straightforward too.

When a candidate registers to run for office, they register as an individual without party affiliation. Registration would allow candidates optionally to request endorsement from political parties as part of registration. Two weeks after candidate registration closes, the political parties would select from the candidates that requested endorsement. The party endorsements are submitted to the Secretary of State and the county clerks. The endorsed candidates would have the party’s endorsement listed after their name on the ballot; candidates who didn’t get endorsed wouldn’t. Voters would see the candidates each party thought would represent their party well.  

Candidates could request the endorsement of as many parties as they wish, and political parties can approve as many or as few candidates as they like well. To ensure each party has consistent statewide standards, the state parties would decide which legislators and statewide and national office candidates would earn their blessing. County parties would decide on the approvals for county and other local partisan offices.

These changes, while small, would ensure three critical things:

  1. The general election, with its more prominent number of voters, would decide more races.
  2. The general election would effectively be a runoff election.
  3. It would make the elected officials accountable to their political parties.

It also has the benefits of little extra cost and little extra effort from the county clerks. This benefit is more significant than it appears at first blush.  

The only genuine concern of adopting the top-two primary is switching the method of candidate registration and party endorsement going unimplemented. Left-leaning legislators won’t likely want that done as they are most likely to lose Republican endorsement.  Both changes however will give voters more information when they head to the polls.

Wyoming election law needs to be updated; when it gets done, let’s make sure we do it the right way for the right reason, addressing the right problems.  

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