By Leo Wolfson, political reporter
A bill will be drafted in the Wyoming Legislature that would strip the incoming Secretary of State of their duties to oversee the state’s elections.
State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, chair of the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, on Thursday afternoon proposed establishing a five-member, non-partisan elections commission to take up these duties. The committee supported drafting the bill with a 7-3 vote.
Last week, State Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, won the Republican nomination for Secretary of State. As of press time, Gray does not face any opponent in the general election.
Gray did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the proposed draft bill.
Zwonitzer made it clear on Thursday that this bill is primarily directed at Gray.
“We do have a 2024 election coming up that is going to be very contentious and I do have some concern that the most likely person who will be our chief elections officer, Secretary of State, has alleged that there may be nefarious activities in the ballot box in Wyoming, which I don’t agree exists,” Zwonitzer said during the meeting. “I think our elections are secure, probably more than any other state in this country.”
One of the Secretary of State’s main responsibilities in Wyoming is overseeing the state’s elections.
Zwonitzer said an election oversight committee would be appointed by the state’s Canvassing Board, which is made up by the Governor, Secretary of State, State Auditor, and State Treasurer. He said the election commission would serve as a separate operating agency within the state government and allow for an expansion of the state’s election management, creating more oversight power for issues like campaign finances and dark money.
“I know there’s various people out there who think our elections are not secure. I know most of us think they are,” Zwonitzer said. “If we really want to convince the public that our elections are beyond reproach, I think it would be a good idea to have a separate operating agency overseen by our Constitutional officers.”
Gray expressed doubt about the security of Wyoming’s elections throughout his campaign, a point a few members of the Corporations committee and certain staff from the Secretary of State’s office said they found offensive. He also made claims about changes he would make to Wyoming law that the Secretary of State does not have legal power to make and would have to be passed through the Wyoming Legislature. Gray later clarified he would orchestrate many of these changes through lobbying legislators.
Zwonitzer, Sens. Cale Case, R-Lander, R-Cheyenne, and Reps. Jim Roscoe, I-Wilson, Marshall Burt, L-Green River, were part of the contingency that voted for it.
Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, who voted against drafting the bill, expressed trepidation about its purpose and the blowback it may receive.
“I think that for the majority of voters who voted for the gentleman who won the Secretary of State’s primary … 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.
Scott said the current structure of duties works for Wyoming and that the 23 county clerks will preserve the integrity of the state’s elections.
He also expressed concern that passing this legislation would put the state in a situation similar to when it stripped former Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill of most of her duties in 2013. The Legislature and former Gov. Matt Mead did this because Hill used state and federal funds for programs not authorized by the Legislature and didn’t cooperate with that body when it came to reforms. The Legislature’s actions were later ruled unconstitutional by the Wyoming Supreme Court.
“The consequences were most unfortunate,” Scott said. “I think we ought to learn from that.”
Burt disagreed with Scott on this comparison and made the motion to draft the bill.
“I think that the state wouldn’t be sued … if it was working the way it was intended to,” Burt said. “I do like the oversight and we can at least bring a draft and have a discussion, instead of shutting it down before we can even have a debate.”
Zwonitzer also disagreed with Scott in an interview with Cowboy State Daily Friday morning and said the changes would be more akin to adjustments made in the Treasurer’s office over the last few years, where that elected official is no longer solely responsible for overseeing the state’s entire budget.
Zwonitzer argued that establishing a panel made up by non-elected officials to oversee elections is not an “out of the box” idea, as he said about half of the nation’s states have this. He said creating this panel would eliminate the partisan nature of a single, elected official being responsible for running the state’s elections.
“It would alleviate some of the concerns from our committee and the Legislature,” Zwonitzer said. “Elections can’t be political and the person in charge of elections on the ballot, it is difficult to see them not being political. It’s probably better off spreading that out between five people like other government functions. It ensures good government.”
Zwonitzer said if the commission is established, the Secretary of State would retain their other job duties, which include overseeing the state’s corporations and business licensing, regulating securities exchange, serving as a member on the State Lands and Investments Board, State Board of Land Commissioners, State Building Commission.
He said the contentious race between Gray and Nethercott caused him to start thinking about creating this panel, but said he is unsure if he would have proposed this idea if Nethercott had won the primary. He said it was Gray’s rhetoric that he felt may put the state in a “precarious position” when it comes to the administration of elections.
During one forum, Gray also indicated that he would only keep staff in the Secretary of State’s office who share his vision.
“We’re worried that the entire office will walk out or he’ll remove them all,” Zwonitzer said.
Monique Meese, communications and policy director for the Secretary of State’s Office, said she resigned partly because of Gray’s election win. She told Cowboy State Daily she is concerned that many other members of the office might do the same.
Although Karen Wheeler, deputy secretary of state, said in a Tuesday interview with Cowboy State Daily she is not resigning at this time, she said she is unsure about her future after the end of the year when the next Secretary of State starts their term.
The effort to draft this bill is a new development in an ongoing campaign to prevent Gray from overseeing the state’s elections. Last week, Case and a prominent lobbyist initiated separate searches to find an Independent candidate to run against Gray in the general election.
A draft of the bill is scheduled for discussion at the next Corporations Committee meeting Oct. 13-14.