By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Wyoming elections may be subjected to hand-count ballot audits after the Legislature’s House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee killed a bill Wednesday that would have prevented ballot inspections.
With the rejection of House Bill 6, the possibility of hand-count ballot audits in Wyoming elections remains alive, as newly sworn in Secretary of State Chuck Gray has said he wants more scrutiny of Wyoming elections.
HB 6, which would have clarified that ballots cannot be requested for inspection under the Public Records Act, was rejected by the committee on a 6-3 vote.
It also was specific that any ballots, election records or images of ballots would be kept confidential.
Under A Microscope
After the 2020 presidential election, hundreds of public record requests were made across Wyoming to inspect ballots, said Mary Lankford of the Wyoming County Clerks Association.
Lankford said her organization supported the legislation.
“There are people in Wyoming who feel strongly that we may have had fraud in our previous election,” said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne. “Especially perhaps a presidential election where one candidate didn’t get the number of votes that they expected.”
Zwonitzer was referencing former President Donald Trump, who has consistently claimed the 2020 election was rigged.
Gray has continued to sow those seeds of doubt during his campaign last year, hosting free showings of a movie that claimed ballot harvesting significantly altered the results of the 2020 election.
The debate over whether to prioritize free and fair elections over the secrecy of a voter’s ballot took over much of Wednesday’s discussion.
Hand Count Support
Noteworthy was the vote of Rep. Sandy Newsome, R-Cody, who rejected HB 6.
Newsome, a more moderate Republican, represents an eastern portion of Park County. She narrowly won her reelection bid against Nina Webber, a more conservative candidate, in the August primary.
Last year, an organized effort to initiate a hand count audit of Park County’s 2020 election results was launched. The request to hand count was determined unconstitutional by Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill, a decision echoed by Park County commissioners, but met with some criticism from the public.
The proposed legislation would have solidified state laws forbidding members of the public from having access to inspecting ballots after elections.
“I don’t want anybody looking at my ballot,” said Rep. Steven Harshman, R-Casper, who voted for the bill.
About ‘Voter Confidence,’ Gray Says
Gray spoke in opposition to the bill on Wednesday afternoon, saying the legislation moved in an opposite direction from where Wyoming should be headed with its election management.
“Voter confidence in elections is pivotal,” he said. “We need to be on the cutting edge here, not just with the statement that our elections are flawless, but proving that they are flawless every step of the way.”
Zwonitzer said problems could arise if someone wrote his or herself in for multiple positions in small-population precincts or provided any other information that might help someone inspecting a ballot identify them.
Gail Symons, a political activist who runs the Civics307 blog, said of the 442 total voting precincts in the state, there are 37 with 100 or fewer registered voters and 92 with fewer than 200 voters.
In Wyoming, voting equipment is used to make a photocopy of each ballot cast. It’s also able to tabulate a list of all write-in names.
Gray said there were a few misconceptions about the proposed legislation about this.
He said the bill was clear that the cast ballot images are prohibited from being inspected, but it did not address physical ballots, which are already illegal to inspect.
Potential To Intimidate
Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, said voter intimidation could result by allowing people to figure out how their neighbors voted.
Gray believes the secrecy of ballots could be maintained, but he had no clear answers as to how to do it. He said privacy concerns could be addressed by redacting identifiable information in low-population precincts.
“What if there’s real evidence of some manipulation of the ballots and we have no procedure, zero, to have any hand, eyeball examination?” Gray asked Yin. “The implications there are very real.”
County canvassing boards retain this ability, but Gray said he worries this could also be restricted under an attorney general determination.
Attorney General Bridget Hill previously opined that ballots, even if lacking personal identification information, are not public. This direction was followed by the Secretary of State’s office at the time.
Lankford said a major question in Wyoming law is whether ballot secrecy is to be maintained after cast. It was Hill’s opinion that the right exists in perpetuity.
“We don’t let the general public touch ballots or look at those ballots,” Zwonitzer said.
Fight Just Begun
In his presentation Wednesday, Gray hinted at the possibility he will take a different track on the issue.
He said the inability for him to act “would be a really, really dangerous precedent,” but clarified that the failure of the bill does not mean ballots, or the contained identifying information in them, will automatically be inspected statewide.
“It seems to me the passage of this bill wouldn’t do anything (from the status quo),” said Corporations Committee Chairman Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne.
Lankford agreed and said the bill’s failure will only spark more fighting about ballot inspections.
Gray somewhat agreed, but said if passed, HB 6 would have codified Hill’s legal opinion into state law. The Secretary of State’s office has not examined Hill’s decision since Gray took office last week.
Olsen and Rep. Christopher Knapp, R-Gillette, also expressed concern that the legislation as written could not be overridden by the order of a court.
Many opponents of the bill said they’re open to investigating the security of Wyoming’s elections.
“The decrease in confidence in this state has been based on unfounded and undocumented concerns,” Symons said.
Laura Taliaferro Pearson, a sheep farmer from Kemmerer, spoke against the bill and said it would “further disenfranchise the American voter.”
“How are our elections supposed to remain open and transparent if ballots, ballot images, records and data are not made available to we the people?” she questioned.
Jonathan Lange, a pastor from Evanston, said voting down the legislation will help turnout and confidence in elections.
Cheryl Aguiar, a Thermopolis resident who helped organize a write-in campaign for Brent Bien in the general election, mentioned a series of election conspiracy theories in her argument.
Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, said some election conspiracy theories are false, while others have validity. He, like others, recommended moving the bill to an interim topic to be discussed after the legislative session ends.
“I believe the cry-wolf syndrome is something that we’re dealing with, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter,” he said. “If someone doesn’t trust it, they don’t trust it.”