About three weeks into his first term, Secretary of State Chuck Gray has taken a markedly different approach to giving input on legislation than his predecessor Ed Buchanan.
Gray has actively lobbied for and against certain bills, even taking political stances to make his points.
Last week he spoke against legislation that would have allowed some ranked choice voting in Wyoming, a type of voting he said is motivated by “perverse incentives.”
“I urge this committee not to forward this legislation,” he said.
Buchanan and his staff were much more measured when giving input to the Legislature, keeping a narrow administrative perspective to their comments. Further, it was typically Deputy Secretary of State Karen Wheeler that testified before the legislature.
But Gray’s staff is a bit less experienced, with his two leading officials new to the Secretary of State’s office. Mary Lankford, a representative for the Wyoming County Clerks Association and former Sublette County clerk of 32 years, believes Gray is leaning on his legislative chops because of that.
“Maybe he’s going to take the lead on all the legislative stuff because he’s got the most experience of anybody in the room,” Lankford said.
The approach Gray has taken does not infringe on any state laws and many legislators say they have no problem with it.
“The executive branch or someone from the governor’s office will bring suggestions about what their thoughts are on a piece of legislation, whether it limits them especially,” Sen. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, said.
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, agreed. He mentioned a few examples where former secretaries of state like Max Maxfield actively lobbied for a bill.
Near the end of his tenure in 2011, Maxfield presented three bills to the Legislature to crack down on fraudulent businesses in the state.
“He was hardcore for it,” Case said.
Last session, former interim Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder spoke in favor of legislation that would have prohibited transgender males from participating in female sports.
Lankford said Gov. Mark Gordon lobbied while he was treasurer for legislation that allowed the state to expand what it could invest in.
State Treasurer Curt Meier said he will lobby for a bill this year sponsored by the Select Committee on Capital Financing & Investments.
Meier said his office routinely gives opinions on bills, but he sees their input as simply providing information to legislators.
“I’ll always call up the sponsor and say, ‘hey, I think there’s a little hair on this one and maybe we can give it a haircut,’” he said.
A Different Level Of Input
Two weeks into the legislative session Gray has spoken for or against several bills, which is more than anyone holding his office has done in recent history.
“In my history of 20 years, an elected official has only come a handful of times in 20 years, and in the most important circumstances,” said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne. “To have someone coming to every meeting and discuss almost every bill is just a new, not-before-seen.”
Gray’s office drafted an amendment to a bill to federally certify all election equipment in the state, which was accepted by the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee.
Rep. Jared Olsen, R-Cheyenne, chairman of the committee, declined to comment on Gray’s actions.
“Was it maybe a little unique that a former member of the Legislature brings something specifically? That’s rare,” Barlow said. “Maybe it’s different, but I don’t know if it sends worries, he is an elected representative.”
Gray served in the legislature from 2016-2022 but now is in the executive branch of the government.
“He’s coming to grips with how much policy role he has and how much administrative role, he’s probably trying to figure that out,” Case said. “The only pull he really has is right here in this Legislature. He’s either going to try and influence something that’s coming or try to get someone to carry something.”
Zwonitzer didn’t agree.
“He was in the House for six years, I think he should have a pretty good sense of previous historic practice,” he said.
During his campaign last summer, Gray said he would take a more aggressive approach to the job and actively push for certain laws and policies as part of an overarching fight for “election integrity.” He criticized his opponent state Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, for not wanting to take the same approach.
“I was elected on a platform of ensuring election integrity,” Gray told Cowboy State Daily on Friday. “A large part of ensuring election integrity includes advocating for statutory reforms to improve our elections processes.”
On Jan. 10, his office issued a press release detailing his administrative priorities for the 67th Legislature. These included ending crossover voting, increasing security and clarification of Wyoming’s voter ID requirements, banning private financing of government election offices and ballot harvesting, increasing transparency in elections.
Most of Gray’s lobbying efforts have been successful so far. He spoke against bills that would have changed the vacancy appointment process and instituted a ranked choice voting pilot program in Wyoming. Both bills died in committee.
Democrat Kathy Karpan was Secretary of State of Wyoming from 1987-1995. Karpan told Cowboy State Daily she was seen as taking a more aggressive approach to her duties at the time compared to her predecessor. She successfully proposed 11 different business-law and election-code related bills to the Legislature during her time.
“I have a feeling that I might have been one of the most proactive,” Karpan said. “I don’t know that they had the same sense of mission that I did to get the Legislature to help me update the laws I administered.”
She said every one of the bills her office proposed passed because they had built credibility by informing the Legislature and keeping members involved every step of the way.
But Karpan clarified that every bill she commented on directly affected her office.
“I did not go up there and sound off on anything that didn’t relate to my office,” she said. “It had to relate to the duties I performed everyday in office.
“My own opinion on other matters, really shouldn’t bear any more weight than other Wyoming residents.”
Lankford said Karpan would hold back from voicing her opinion on certain matters if she deemed them too political.
“He (Gray) needs to represent the election,” Lankford said. “He needs to guarantee any candidate or any person involved that he’s going to provide them with a fair shake as a candidate. Some of that political stuff gets kind of dicey.”
Some of Gray’s comments have pertained to what he finds best for Wyoming voters, rather than the direct administrative effects of legislation.
Gray said his approach shouldn’t be considered unusual.
“It was what I was elected by the people of Wyoming to do,” Gray said. “Frankly it’s part of my job, and I will continue to work with the Legislature in ensuring the best legislation is brought forward.”
Zwonitzer, who at one point supported drafting legislation that would have stripped the Secretary of State of their right to oversee the state’s elections, said he has been surprised by the way Gray has been conducting himself.
“I think it’s allowed, it’s just been kind of uncouth in the past,” he said. “It was considered unstately previously.”
Gray isn’t likely to let up anytime soon. New legislation to address crossover voting hasn’t been discussed yet, nor has there been any bills on ballot harvesting, private financing of government offices, or drop box ballot boxes.
“It’s a little touchy,” Zwonitzer said. “I appreciate historically when your executive branch defers to a legislative branch on how to make laws and realizes its legislative prerogative and the executive branch will enforce the laws the Legislature makes without expressing preference.”