By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
A committee of the Wyoming Legislature rejected a bill Wednesday that would have changed the way political vacancies are filled.
It was another win for the platform of new Secretary of State Chuck Gray, who advocated against the bill.
House Bill 63, “Vacancies In Elected Office,” would have altered the procedures for filling vacancies for certain federal and all state offices by requiring special elections if more than half of a term remains at the time of the vacancy.
The bill was rejected on a 5-3 vote by the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee.
Proposed No More Nominations From Parties
Under current state law, when a sitting lawmaker leaves office before a term expires, the political party that person is a member of is tasked with nominating candidates to replace them.
For state executive level and U.S. Senate positions, the state party nominates three people, then the governor makes a final appointment.
For state legislative and county commission seats, the county party belonging to the outgoing lawmaker submits candidates and that county’s commission makes an appointment.
Special elections are already called when Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat needs to be filled more than six months before the next general election. A special election was held in 1989 when former Wyoming congressman Dick Cheney was named U.S. Secretary of Defense.
The bill would have added the other five statewide elected offices – governor, treasurer, auditor, superintendent of public instruction and secretary of state – to the special election process.
Also added would be members of the state Legislature and Wyoming’s two U.S. Senate seats.
Two Recent Examples
In 2022, the Wyoming Republican Party was charged with replacing two state executive officials.
In January, it provided candidates to replace Jillian Balow for interim superintendent of public instruction, and in September the party nominated three candidates for interim secretary of state to replace Ed Buchanan.
The result of both nominating processes drew criticism from some.
A lawsuit was filed over the process used to select interim Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder, with the plaintiffs claiming the Wyoming GOP violated the state and U.S. constitutions.
Had HB 63 been in place at the time of those vacancies, the process would not have affected either appointment as both officials had less than half their terms remaining.
Voice Of The People
Gray said his office opposed changing the appointment process, in effect saying what Wyoming has now works.
“The current system that Wyoming uses for filling vacancies is a good one,” he said. “It allows the party’s central committee for the party of the prior office holder to screen candidates and select three candidates.
“This system ensures that duly elected party representatives can choose nominees to fill the seat with candidates who share that party’s values.”
Gray finds the current party nomination system as “similar to a primary.”
Typically, around 100 people voted in the Republican Party’s nomination for Schroeder last year, and even fewer voted for Interim Secretary of State Karl Allred in the fall because of a road closure.
A county party nomination would likely have an even lower vote total.
An Argument For Special Elections
Gail Symons, a political activist who runs the Civics307 blog, disagreed with Gray and believes the special elections would be more similar to a general election.
She mentioned how turnout will almost certainly be higher in a special election than the number of people who vote in a county or state party election.
Rep. Forrest Chadwick, R-Casper, found fault with this argument, mentioning how special elections traditionally draw a low turnout. Gray agreed.
If that’s going to be the case, “is that really the will of the voters?” he asked.
Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, said he believes every election reflects the will of the people.
Gray clarified he was making a comparison between a special election and a standard general or primary.
Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, voted for and spoke in favor of the legislation.
“I just think it’s important for the people to elect their representatives,” he said.
Rep. Allen Slagle, R-Newcastle, said the current vacancy process works well.
Slagle’s predecessor, former representative J.D. Williams, was elected through an appointment from his county commissioners. Slagle beat Williams by a very small margin in the 2022 Republican primary.
Laramie resident Brett Glass said vacancies should not be filled “in a back room” by the “party bosses.”
Members of a party’s central committee precinct are given the opportunity to select vacancy candidates. Many, but not all, of those precinct members are chosen in public elections.
Glass also mentioned how incumbent candidates have a natural advantage in elections.
Although the incumbent advantage has been statistically proven, it doesn’t always hold. Schroeder ran in the Republican primary and lost to current Superintendent Megan Degenfelder.
Gray warned that a situation could arise where the majority party fields eight candidates and the minority party two, creating a “jungle situation” by overwhelming voters with options on the ballot.
“It just amplifies the chaos in my opinion,” he said.
Symons said a replacement of an elected official should be from the same political party. Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, passed an amendment to reflect this.
“This makes it so it’s only one party that can run,” he said.
Make It Timely
Under state law, various times throughout the year would be used to determine dates of special elections.
They could fall either on either the primary or general election day, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May or November, or on the first Tuesday after the third Monday in August.
Chadwick and Rep. Christopher Knapp, R-Gillette, expressed concern about delays to elect replacements during a critical time of the year, such as a legislative session.
The current laws give political parties 15 days to convene to select candidates for an appointment, and five days for the governor to pick a replacement.
Consider The Cost
Gray said the cost of running a statewide special election also should be considered, running around $1 million per election based on the cost of a prior runoff election.
The 2020 primary cost the state $1.1 million.
“On a statewide one, $1 million, I’m not sure how we’d do that,” he said.
HB 63 had originally passed through the Corporations Committee in the fall, but now the committee has a completely new membership.
The committee also discussed a bill that would initiate ranked choice voting in Wyoming, allowing municipalities to run ranked choice pilot programs they would pay for.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said that in Utah, there were about 25 municipalities that participated in similar programs.
Chadwick described the cost to run these programs as “substantial,” but Zwonitzer said costs could be similar to what small communities pay now for their town elections.
Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese said she doesn’t know of any cities or towns that own their own voting machines.
Mary Lankford of the Wyoming County Clerks Association said counties have the capability to run these elections.
But if one happened at the same time as a November federal election, they would have to hire a third party to tabulate results of the ranked choice pilot election and lease $10,000 in software.
She also said updates would need to be made to the Wyoming elections registration system, WyoReg.
There is no state funding for the program and all costs would be paid by the local municipality.
Freese mentioned other potential issues.
“It is very very difficult for our voters to understand why they are getting two ballots,” Freese said.
But Freese also mentioned the scenario of a primary election for a mayor’s race with a handful of candidates.
If the winning candidate didn’t receive a plurality of 50% of the vote, she said it could be a benefit for the public to feel like the most deserving candidate won under ranked choice.
The committee will resume its discussion on ranked choice voting Friday at noon.