By Leo Wolfson, State Political Reporter
The interim secretary of state that will be chosen soon will oversee the upcoming general election in November, but former Secretary of State Max Maxfield said whoever it is will serve as little more than a “placeholder.”
“Hopefully, they will honor the fact that 23 county clerks really do the heavy lifting and will let the deputy secretary of state do her job,” Maxfield told Cowboy State Daily on Friday afternoon.
This weekend, the Wyoming Republican Party will consider 11 applicants for the interim secretary of state job. The person appointed to the position will oversee the election and the Secretary of State’s office through the end of the year. At that point, the elected secretary of state will take over.
State Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, who won the Republican nomination for secretary of state, is largely expected to be Wyoming’s next secretary of state as he faces no general election opponent.
Although Gray said he will work with the clerks, he also has stressed he has the power to make many changes his detractors have argued cannot be performed by the secretary of state.
Secretary of State Ed Buchanan stepped down Sept. 15, facilitating the need for the state GOP to help Gov. Mark Gordon appoint an interim for the position.
The appointee will have an opportunity to try and enact policy changes for the election, such as banning ballot drop boxes around the state. Ballot drop boxes fell under scrutiny in Wyoming for the first time during the 2020 election, permitted by Buchanan because of COVID-19 concerns.
Banning drop boxes is a commitment Gray has made throughout his campaign. He is ineligible for the interim role as he is still serving an active elected term through the end of the year.
Mark Armstrong, a geologist, has applied for the interim role and said he would ban ballot drop boxes for the Nov. 8 general election if appointed. Although Armstrong said he is aligned with Gray and supports him, enacting the ban before Gray takes office would steal a major campaign promise away from the Republican nominee.
Can The Nominee Really?
Maxfield said Armstrong and Gray are incorrect in their belief they have the ability to ban the drop boxes or enact major changes. He said an attempt to ban counties from using them could be met with resistance from the state’s county clerks, who Maxfield believes have the power to make their own decisions on the matter.
“I don’t believe the secretary of state can rule on drop boxes,” Maxfield said.
Maxfield questioned the ability of the interim officeholder to make even minor changes to election procedures.
“When you’re talking about elections, there are no small changes,” he said, adding that the state’s laws were specifically written in a way that grants local autonomy. “Any change affects the whole state.”
Former Secretary of State Ed Murray said the interim selection would need the cooperation of the state Legislature and Gordon to have a chance at banning the drop boxes before the general election.
“There would have to be some cohesive work going on among all the branches for something to happen like that,” Murray said.
Farther down the road, Murray said Gray would have a better chance at enacting the ban.
“If the future secretary of state will have at his disposal, the time to really build,” he said. “Therefore, they will have an advantage and better chance to enact that or any other major policy change and direction.”
Supporters of ballot boxes have said they increase voter participation and are secure devices.
Gray made a number of other promises during the campaign that would require a change of state law and action brought by the Legislature to occur, such as making ballot harvesting a felony.
Buchanan was of the belief that the secretary of state is charged with enforcing the state’s current laws. He said it’s the job of the state’s 23 county clerks to run elections, a view Maxfield agrees with, saying the secretary of state simply enforces the laws determined by the Legislature.
Murray has a different outlook, saying the secretary of state has the power to unilaterally make some real changes. He mentioned the work his office did modernizing its business filing system online, decreasing the time it took to register from seven to 10 days to 30 minutes, a project he said cost the state no money and took less than six months.
“During my term, I was able to do things that had been prevented and had been attempted,” Murray said. “It takes leadership and can-do rather than can’t-do. You can accomplish so much.”
Two prominent members of the Secretary of State’s office indicated shortly after Gray won the primary that they are quitting.
Murray, who served from 2015-2018, promoted current Deputy Secretary of State Karen Wheeler and State Election Director Kai Schon into their current roles. Schon previously indicated he would quit, but posted on LinkedIn on Wednesday he will stay with the office through the general election and then, “I’ll be more aggressive in my search” for a new job.
“The team I put in place is the best thing the interim will have in place at their disposal,” Murray said.
Gray was supported by many prominent members of the Republican Party during his campaign. Many of the candidates who applied for the interim role said they would facilitate a smooth transition for him.
During the primary campaign, Gray and Armstrong both said Wyoming’s elections need to be made more secure. Murray said he has no doubts about the security of Wyoming’s elections and would not comment on what he thought of the primary campaign.
The last appointment process in Wyoming happened in January when the Wyoming GOP selected finalists for interim superintendent of public instruction. Each county GOP party was given the same amount of votes during this selection process, drawing a lawsuit from more than a dozen people, accusing the party of violating the “one man, one vote” law. The lawsuit was quickly thrown out in court.
Murray said the next secretary of state should understand the Wyoming and U.S. constitutions’ one person, one vote provisions.
“This person should be able to articulate how in Wyoming, we enjoy secure, honest elections,” he said. “In my term, we took all the steps necessary to ensure one person, one vote, only for those who are eligible to vote.”