By Leo Wolfson, Cowboy State Daily
Mark Armstrong fears his ability to connect with absentee voters is being reduced by the Wyoming secretary of state’s office.
That’s why the Republican candidate for secretary of state said he plans to file a lawsuit Wednesday against the state and key officials in the department he is campaigning to lead, alleging his First and 14th amendments were violated, as were various state laws.
“If this is allowed to be carried out, there will never be fair elections in Wyoming again,” Armstrong said.
Absentee Ballot Status Reports
The threatened lawsuit stems from the refusal of the secretary of state’s Elections Division to let Armstrong access absentee ballot status reports.
Historically in Wyoming, most recently during the 2020 election, Armstrong said candidates and the public could access these reports on a “daily or weekly basis” to track which voters had cast a ballot so they could see which voters they theoretically needed to contact first about their campaign.
Absentee voting opens up 45 days prior to the primary election.
As a lesser-known candidate, Armstrong said he is relying on these lists to make himself known to the early voters.
“Those absentee ballots have already turned into votes,” he said.
Registered voter data is available to the public, but Armstrong said that information is insufficient because he needs to know who the early voters are so he can determine who to reach out to early with his campaign information.
A change was made by the secretary of state’s office after the 2020 election, allowing individual counties to determine how readily available those absentee voter roles would be to candidates.
Armstrong said some counties have been cooperative, but others have charged him hundreds of dollars for the documents and can take up to 25 days to even respond to a request. He said Albany County didn’t respond to his request at all.
The Legislature’s Elections, Corporations and Political Subdivisions Committee addressed this issue at its June 30 meeting. Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne said the change occurred at the direction of Attorney General Bridget Hill.
The committee recommended at the June meeting that the Elections Division revert to its prior policy of making this information consistently available at no charge statewide.
However, Armstrong said the Elections Division continues to reject his requests. He did not provide any proof he has submitted any requests since the June 30 meeting.
Armstrong also plans to name Albany County Clerk Jackie Gonzales in the lawsuit for refusing to acknowledge his request to allow him and about 25 other applicants to inspect envelopes containing returned absentee ballots, along with requests made for absentee ballots. At issue are an estimated 12,000 ballots.
“How do I check if these were valid absentee ballots? I can’t,” Armstrong said. “I’m not here for retaliation, I’m looking to see valid votes.”
Gonzales refused 14 of Armstrong’s requests because these documents contain personal emails and signatures belonging to the people who made their requests and cast their votes.
Armstrong found fault with this argument, citing a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court case that determined the disclosure of signatures on a referendum does not violate the First Amendment.
Gonzales determined that signatures count as “personally identifiable information” under Wyoming election records law, information not allowed to be released to any member of the public.
“How can you have any confidence when you’re denied to see a signature?” Armstrong asked.
Gonzales also rejected Armstrong’s requests to inspect all of the ballots with redacted information, as she said this would require the creation of new documents. The Wyoming Public Records Act allows the government the right to reject requests that require the creation of new documents.
Also rejected by Gonzales were requests to inspect all email communications made between the Albany County Clerk’s office and the secretary of state’s office. The secretary of state’s office said the documents could be provided, but at a cost of nearly $3,000. Armstrong said requests that allow the public to become informed about elections are free under Wyoming law.
“I come and they up the price,” he said. “Those requests should have been free.”
Suing Ed Buchanan
Armstrong is also planning to sue Secretary of State Ed Buchanan for defamation for comments he made in a recent Cowboy State Daily story.
In that story, Buchanan said no party had presented any evidence of any alleged voter fraud to his office.
“No candidate for this office has ever come to me or my staff and said, ‘Hey I found some voter fraud and here it is, it’s documented for you, please investigate this,’” Buchanan said. “For an individual candidate to suggest they’ve exposed voter fraud, that’s a little odd to say when they’ve never provided that evidence or documentation to us.”
Gonzales did not respond to a request for comment, but Monique Meese, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, said the office is complying with state laws in providing documents
“We are currently providing what is permitted by statute and we have not received any directive otherwise from the legislature or any subset thereof,” she said.
Meese said the change was made after the SOS office undertook a review of its statutory responsibilities after the 2020 election.
“This was done, in part, as a result of some misuse of the information we previously provided,” Meese said. “As a result, the decision was made to provide only that which is required by statute.”
Meese said while their department did review the change with the attorney general’s office, it was not done at their direction.
Armstrong did submit a formal complaint to the secretary of state’s office in August 2021, alleging a number of infractions by Gonzales and her staff from the 2020 election.
He said there were no poll watchers during the 2020 election, but Gonzales said in a letter sent to Armstrong that neither the Albany County Republican nor Democratic parties certified poll watchers prior to the commencement of early voting.
Gonzales said members of her staff, Republicans, Democrats and Independents, served as election judges for early voting, and Republican Party representatives from the Absentee Ballot Board were present when the absentee ballots were opened and scanned.
Armstrong also cited a report by an Albany County precinct committee member, who said nine ballots were sent to empty trailers. Armstrong said he does not know if the ballots were addressed to the previous tenants or all to the owner.
He also said he found it suspicious that many Democratic candidates surged ahead in their respective elections after early absentee ballots were counted.
“There were irregularities in Albany including absentee ballots that were opened and processed without judges present,” he said.
22 Out Of 23
A Wyoming native who runs a California company from his Centennial home, Armstrong said 22 of Wyoming’s 23 counties ran fair elections in 2020, save for his home of Albany County.
“I’d rather give a positive message but the government is broken, man,” Armstrong said. “If I don’t fight to fix it, we’re not going to get fair elections.”
In Wyoming, absentee ballots can only be sent to people who request them. To make a request, a citizen must be a registered voter and provide their name, date of birth, current or most recent address.
Blasts Nethercott & Gray
Armstrong said he sees himself as the only candidate in the secretary of state’s race that can make a real change. His two opponents, Tara Nethercott and Chuck Gray, are both current members of the state Legislature.
“I’m not some cute little blonde who hasn’t had to fight a day in her life,” Armstrong said in reference to Nethercott, an attorney. “I’m not some other candidate living off daddy’s money.”
If elected, he said will ban ballot drop boxes and severely restrict absentee voting.
“Politics, it’s dirty, nobody else is talking about ethics,” he said.
Both Nethercott and Gray have made election integrity a centerpiece to their campaigns.
Armstrong, an Albany County Republican Party committeeman, said he will solicit his county party and the State GOP to help him acquire legal representation and to join him in the case, which he already tried to resolve through the state’s administrative relief department.
Typically, cases pertaining to election law originate in county-level district courts, but Armstrong said he is bringing his case straight to federal court as it pertains to state laws.
Ginger Bennett, chairman of the Fremont County Republican Party, chastised Armstrong on June 30 for using the State GOP’s email list to further his cause.
“Please either define what action you would like this body to do, and bring that action at an appropriately called meeting, or please do not continue to use this list as a mechanism for wide dissemination of your issues,” she said in an email to him. “This group is not available to all candidates, and it could be perceived that you are trying to sway this body to act on your behalf as a state central committeeman.”