By Leo Wolfson, State Political Reporter
The Wyoming Legislature’s Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee has drafted a bill that would dramatically alter the way some lawmakers and officials are appointed in Wyoming.
The bill, titled “Vacancies in Elected Office,” would initiate special elections to fill vacant state executive and legislative political seats in Wyoming. The exact language of the bill has not been released.
Under current state law, when a sitting lawmaker leaves office before the term expires, the political party that person is a member of is tasked with nominating candidates to replace them.
“I think that we would like to give the people of Wyoming, irrespective of party, more power on that choice,” said state Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, chair of the Corporations Committee. “It’s designed to turn it back to all people and not let a lot of our races go to the party nominees. It’s really to put it back to the county commissioners and all the people of Wyoming.”
For state executive level and U.S. Senate positions, the state party nominates three people, and the governor makes a final appointment. For state legislative and county commissioner seats, the county party belonging to the outgoing lawmaker submits candidates and that county’s commissioners decide who their next fellow board member will be.
Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, initiated a similar bill during the last legislative session. It failed to receive introduction to the House with a 39-21 vote. Under his bill, county commissioners would directly fill seats on their own boards and special elections would have been called for all state executive and legislature races outside of three months from the next general election.
Special elections are already called when Wyoming’s lone U.S. Congress seats need to be filled more than six months before the next general election.
The timing of the new draft bill may be significant.
There have been two state-level appointments initiated this year.
On Saturday, the Wyoming Republican Party nominated three candidates for interim secretary of state to replace Ed Buchanan, who stepped down from the role Sept. 15. Gov. Mark Gordon will have until Thursday to choose between former state legislator Marti Halverson, Sheridan County GOP Chairman Bryan Miller and Uinta County Republican Party Committeeman Karl Allred.
All three lost their most recent elections for the Wyoming Legislature. Miller has an extensive background running for political offices, vying for U.S. Senate in 2014 and 2020 and the U.S. House in 2021, all unsuccessfully. He lost his bid for House District 51 and to be a county party precinct committeeman in August.
Zwonitzer said he’s disappointed with the three candidates the party chose Saturday.
“It seems completely ironic the people who can’t win their own legislative elections the party puts up to represent all people of Wyoming,” Zwonitzer said.
One of the chief duties of the secretary of state is to oversee the state’s elections.
“The three names put forward are party insiders who don’t have experience running elections, that I’m aware of,” Zwonitzer told Cowboy State Daily
Halverson did lead an Election Integrity and Security Committee to audit elections from several precincts in Laramie and Fremont counties. The private committee prepared a long report that was shared with former Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, citing a number of shortcomings it believes exist in Wyoming’s elections.
Mary Lankford, a former Sublette County clerk of 32 years and consultant for the County Clerks Association of Wyoming, finished fifth in Saturday’s vote. In 2020, she was part of the team that helped the state select new election equipment, and she’s directly worked on a number of elections-related legislation.
“I thought there were some really qualified candidates who had experience in the corporations realm and elections, election administration,” Zwonitzer said. “Those were not the people put forward.”
Zwonitzer said the vacancies bill is coming from his committee as a whole. He said it was largely inspired by the same process used to appoint an interim superintendent of public instruction in January. That process sparked a lawsuit immediately after, with the plaintiffs claiming the Wyoming GOP violated the state and U.S. constitutions.
Brian Schroeder, the appointed interim superintendent, lost his primary election to Megan Degenfelder. Degenfelder ran for the appointment in January but was not one of the three finalists chosen by the party.
Carbon County GOP Committeeman Joey Correnti has recently proposed legislation that would allow political parties to directly appoint replacement party precinct committee members.
“We already have that issue in front of us, I just think we’re going the other way from what the party wants,” Zwonitzer said. “The party wants more power on the choice.”
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, a member of the Corporations Committee, said Monday he would support the draft legislation. He said the special elections would be run in a general election format, open to all voters.
The proposed draft was briefly brought up during the Wyoming GOP’s appointment meeting Saturday, and discussed in a negative manner.
The Corporations Committee will consider the bill at its next meeting Oct. 14, along with a slate of other proposed elections bills that include establishing open or “jungle” primary elections and a pilot program for ranked choice voting elections in Wyoming.
The topic of establishing a nonpartisan elections commission will also be discussed, but no bill has been drafted that would initiate this action yet.