By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
An effort to strip Secretary of State Chuck Gray and his office of their authority to oversee Wyoming elections is on the clock.
State Rep. Ken Chestek, D-Laramie, has crafted legislation that would put the State Canvassing Board in charge of supervising Wyoming’s elections instead of the Secretary of State.
Although Gray would still have input into state elections as a chairman of the canvassing board, he also would have to share oversight with the other members of the board: Gov. Mark Gordon, Treasurer Curt Meier, Auditor Kristi Racines and Superintendent of Public Instruction Megan Degenfelder.
Needs To Be Nonpartisan
Chestek also would like a member of the board to be from a political party different from the party represented by the majority of the board. Since all of Wyoming’s top elected officials are Republicans, this would likely be a Democrat.
“If there’s any one thing you need from elections administration is that it’s nonpartisan,” Chestek said. “It’s got to be overseen by both parties to give everyone a fair shot.”
If the board is split between the Republican and Democratic parties, the governor would make a choice on what party the fifth member is from.
‘Petty’ And ‘Unconstitutional’
Gray, for his part, clapped back against the proposed legislation, saying it’s motivated by politics, not what voters want.
“It’s more petty, liberal, unconstitutional behavior from individuals who are attempting to violate the will of the voters,” Gray said.
Gray ran his campaign on a vow to make elections more secure in Wyoming by enacting measures such as banning ballot drop boxes and making ballot harvesting a more seriously penalized crime.
He won the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, who has consistently challenged the results of the 2020 election. Gray beat Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, by roughly 12,000 votes in the August primary and didn’t face a challenger in the general election.
Even though elections are only one of the many duties overseen by the secretary of state, Gray made the issue a cornerstone of his campaign.
Since taking office, he has limited most of his input at the Legislature to comments on elections-related laws. A press release put out by his office Tuesday only mentioned elections-related issues as part legislative priorities.
A variation of this legislation was proposed last summer in the Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee.
A few weeks after Gray won the Republican primary, the committee voted to draft a bill that would have completely stripped the secretary of state of powers to oversee the state elections. The move was in response to Gray’s becoming the presumptive winner of the office.
The proposed bill was met with a loud outcry from many Wyoming conservatives and a number of leading figures in the state Republican Party.
When the state GOP censured Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, his support for the legislation was one of the reasons given. Case also briefly, but unsuccessfully, attempted to field an independent candidate to run against Gray in the general election.
The proposed legislation wasn’t addressed at the committee’s meeting in October and was never discussed further.
Still ‘A Good Idea’
“I thought, let’s not let a good idea die,” Chestek said. “It was a good idea then. I think it’s a good idea now.”
Chestek said he isn’t worried about the pushback he may receive for reviving the effort.
“This is actually what election integrity looks like,” he said. “Rather than have a partisan elected official be in charge of everything, we have a bunch of people and a nonpartisan, bipartisan group overseeing that.”
Another vocal supporter of that legislation was Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, who originally proposed it. Zwonitzer has signed on as a co-sponsor of HB 115, but said he doesn’t expect it to pass.
“I still think in the long term the canvassing board is the way to go,” Zwonitzer said.
Between the time of Gray’s primary win and when he took office last week, about a third of the Secretary of State’s office staff resigned, including four of five executive team members.
All three employees in the Elections Division also resigned, leaving that department vacant.
“I’m concerned that in the Elections Division there is no one there,” Zwonitzer said. “We lost all of our state-level institutional knowledge all at once.”
Zwonitzer said he believes a few of the recent resignees would rejoin the office if House Bill 115.
Part of the canvassing board’s new duties under Chestek’s legislation would be to select an executive director, who Chestek said would be the new Elections Division director. The responsibility to appoint this position now is Gray’s.
“Their main job is going to be to hire a good, nonpartisan director,” Chestek said.
Chestek’s legislation is a bit different than what was proposed over the summer.
Zwonitzer’s proposal would have created a new commission to oversee elections in Wyoming and Gray’s only role in elections would have been helping to select members for the commission.
Chestek’s legislation still includes Gray in the election oversight process.
Although the Secretary of State’s office provides guidance on elections, it is the role of the state’s 23 county clerks to oversee elections. Chestek said it’s the responsibility of the Legislature to determine how to run an election fairly.
“It’s not vested in the secretary of state,” Chestek said.