By Leo Wolfson, State Political Reporter
Interim Secretary of State Karl Allred has wasted no time trying to alter Wyoming’s election process.
Allred sent a letter to the state’s county clerks Friday requesting they consider removing their absentee ballot drop boxes. Allred was sworn in for the appointed job just three days prior.
“I’m mindful of the fact that there have been no issues reported with the use of drop boxes in Wyoming, but that does not alleviate the potential for abuse or destruction of ballots through the use of fire or other means,” Allred says in the letter.
Seven of Wyoming’s 23 counties offer the boxes.
A Campaign Issue
State Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, the Republican nominee who is largely expected to be the next secretary of state in Wyoming as he has no official opponent in the general election, ran a primary campaign pledging to remove the boxes. Since he won’t take office until January, any potential action on changing future elections under his watch wouldn’t take effect until the 2024 elections.
Allred did not immediately respond to Cowboy State Daily’s request for comment and whether Gray asked him to send the county clerks his request. Gray also did not respond to a request for comment.
Before being chosen to be interim secretary of state by Gov. Mark Gordon, Allred would not commit to not speaking to Gray until after the general election. Gray called Allred and congratulated him the night he was appointed by the governor.
Clerk Uncertain About Request
Sweetwater County Clerk Cynthia Lane said she is unsure with a month to go before the general election if her office will remove that county’s absentee ballot box as she has not yet spoken to her county attorney about considering the issue.
“I want to know what the public thinks about it,” she said about the use of a drop box. “My community uses it and I have no concerns about their security.”
In Allred’s letter, he acknowledges that early voting has already begun and the boxes are already being used in Wyoming for the Nov. 8 general election.
“I do not wish to interrupt or cause confusion to the voting process that is already in-progress, but I will ask that you make an honest assessment as to whether or not discontinuing the use of your drop box would cause any disruption for your voters,” Allred wrote.
“If, after your assessment, you ascertain that discontinuing the use of your drop box would not disrupt the ability for your voters to participate in the absentee process, my request is that you would voluntarily discontinue use in this election after proper notification to your voters of this change and in any future elections,” he said.
Lane said she is unsure if there would be any legal ramifications for removing access to a voting mechanism after the voting process has already begun.
Jennifer Lowe, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, said removing the boxes prior to Election Day could be a confusing or challenging change for voters who are used to using the boxes.
Lowe said her organization concurs with the sentiment of many county clerks and opposes removing the drop boxes.
“ESPC is of the understanding that the use of these ballot boxes is safe and secure,” she said. “They are a viable voting mechanism, especially for rural community members to participate in elections.”
Malcolm Ervin, Platte County clerk and president of the Wyoming County Clerks Association, said the WCCA supports any decision individual counties make on ballot drop boxes.
“If a member believes it is the right thing for their county, our opinion is that it should be up to the sovereign county elected official to make that important decision,” he said, adding it is his opinion this decision should be made locally by the individual county clerks, rather than on a statewide basis.
Ervin said it is unlikely any county will remove their boxes before the election.
“Simply because the election is underway with absentee voting,” he said. “In some ways, this could decrease election integrity rather than increase it.”
Ervin said he expects this issue to be a major topic of discussion between the clerks and Secretary of State over the coming years.
Boxes Work In Sweetwater
Lane said she finds the absentee boxes a useful tool in Sweetwater, a 10,491-square-mile county with some towns like Bairoil, a more than two-hour drive from the county courthouse in Green River.
“It’s really convenient for shift workers and long-distance drivers,” Lane said of the ballot box. “Some people don’t want to send their absentee ballots by mail. Some people say they’re heading out of town on vacation and will drop them off before they leave town.”
Allred requests that if counties decide to not remove their boxes that they be under 24-hour surveillance and ballots retrieved and logged at the end of each day, measures already taking place in Sweetwater. Allred requests that people removing these boxes be a bipartisan team of staff or election judges whenever possible, and logs be kept regarding the time, date and number of ballots retrieved.
Other counties with drop boxes are Teton, Laramie, Albany, Big Horn, Converse and Fremont.
Stems From 2020 Election
Many of the concerns involving absentee ballot boxes in Wyoming relate to issues alleged in other states. During his campaign, Gray hosted free showings of “2000 Mules,” a movie that relies on unsubstantiated claims to assert that ballot boxes were stuffed in key battleground states during the 2020 presidential election.
Gray acknowledged during the primary campaign that there hasn’t been any substantial evidence of fraud involving ballot drop boxes in Wyoming, but said that shouldn’t stop the state from getting ahead of the issue.
The absentee ballot boxes were initiated in 2020 as a COVID-19 pandemic measure. Former Secretary of State Ed Buchanan determined state law to mean that a ballot “delivered to the clerk” encompassed the use of a drop box that was at or near an office or county courthouse.
“Though I have a different understanding of what ‘delivered to the clerk’ means, I respect this prior understanding and direction,” Allred says in his letter.
Wyoming is one of 28 states to offer ballot drop boxes.
Ervin commended Allred for politely requesting the clerks remove their boxes, rather than demanding it.
“He stated his position based on a request and that the relationship with the clerks and the Secretary of State is important,” Ervin said.