Unhappy Weston County Commissioners Declare Vacant Wyoming House, Senate Seats

In a move some Wyoming legislators say “they have zero ability to do,” Weston County commissioners unhappy with their representation in the Legislature have voted to declare vacant state Senate and House seats.

Leo Wolfson

April 17, 20247 min read

Weston courthouse 2
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

Most of Weston County’s commissioners believe they aren’t being represented in the Wyoming Legislature as outlined in the Wyoming Constitution, so they’ve decided they can create their own legislative seats.

The commission has voted 3-2 to pass a resolution declaring there are vacant state Senate and House seats that represent the county.

The commissioners assert that since Weston County doesn’t have a dedicated senator or representative solely voting to represent their county, they are unconstitutionally represented.

The resolution calls for creating new legislative districts based on county borders.

“We don’t have a full representation,” Commissioner Garrett Borton, who voted for the resolution, told Cowboy State Daily. “Is this what the Constitution says, and is this what we’re doing?”

Many rural Wyoming counties like Weston, the second-least populated in the state, have argued they’re disproportionately represented at the state level, a trend that’s likely only to continue as larger cities tend to grow at a faster rate.

The state Republican Party has endorsed the viewpoint, allotting an equal number of votes to each county for state central committee meetings.

The commissioners who supported the resolution argued that their county representatives should only be county residents representing their county’s interests.

“Currently, our district is unconstitutionally supporting our county, we’re calling for a redistricting,” Borton explained.

Borton, and fellow commissioners Don Taylor and Vera Huber voted for the resolution, while Nathan Todd and Ed Wagoner voted against.

What Does The Constitution Say?

The issue stems from the way the Wyoming Legislature does mandatory redistricting every 10 years. It’s a process that follows the U.S. Constitution’s “one person, one vote” principle that the Legislature has been more closely following since 1992, which established a new system of proportional representation within Wyoming.

Prior to 1992, the state ran an at-large voting system where legislative districts were broken out by county.

Article 3, Section 3 of the Wyoming Constitution says that each county is entitled to its own senator and representative. But there’s also a footnote stemming from a 1991 federal court lawsuit that says the Legislature may disregard this stipulation when it redistricts because it’s inconsistent with the concept of one man one vote.

The issue was addressed in court as recently as 2012, when an effort challenging Wyoming’s redistricting plans was dismissed.

“I’m sorry, but we have to respect branches of government as interpreted by the books, the highest court of the land,” said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander.

State Rep. Allen Slagle, R-Newcastle, is the only Weston County resident in the Legislature, and also represents Goshen and Niobrara counties. Otherwise, Weston is represented by three state lawmakers who live in Crook and Goshen counties.

What Does It Mean To Vacate?

Borton argued that by declaring the seats vacated, currently state lawmakers would be affected, but very unlikely to lose their current positions. He sees the resolution more as creating new districts in response to what he sees as an unconstitutional application of the law.

In Wyoming, when a legislative seat is vacated, the local political party the previous seatholder belonged to provides three nominations for a replacement candidate, which are then chosen by the county commission.

The Weston resolution calls for a formal declaration of vacancy and for the Wyoming Republican Party to initiate the vacancy filling process with the Weston County GOP. However, this process is reserved for situations where a lawmaker steps down or dies, and isn’t intended for counties to — at their whims —create new legislative seats.

It would be up to the Legislative Service Office and Secretary of State Chuck Gray to decide whether to recognize the entirely new districts.

Case said the resolution would cause a myriad of problems if actually acted upon. It also disappoints him, as he believes it wastes time fighting an issue that’s already been addressed in court “many times over.”

“They have zero ability to do what they’re trying to do,” he said.

Former Weston County attorney Bill Curley is one of the lead organizers behind the resolution. Curley said there is no intention for the effort to affect sitting lawmakers, and that it’s a formal statement to change the way redistricting is done in Wyoming.

“It’s simply saying the Legislature needs to follow the constitution and require district lines to be county lines,” he said.

House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, said he supports the resolution even though it could drastically alter his district. He sees it, like Curley, as a way to get the ball rolling.

“It starts the process for somebody somewhere to take this cause up,” Neiman said.

Politically Motivated?

Senate President Ogden Driskill, R-Devils Tower, represents Weston County, but wouldn’t anymore if a new Senate seat were made. Although Driskill said he supports the overall purpose behind the resolution, he believes its supporters are going about it the wrong way.

He also said its timing is suspicious.

“What they’ve done is put a whole lot of people in a weird place,” he said.

The latest round of redistricting was completed in Wyoming more than two years ago, which led into the 2022 election and the current districts that state lawmakers now represent.

Driskill mentioned how none of the people pushing for the resolution attended a redistricting meeting held in Upton around that time, but Borton said the Weston commissioners went to Cheyenne as a group during the legislative session to express their thoughts that Weston should be kept whole in its representation.

Also, after the recently completed legislative session, Driskill was a target for some Republicans for some of the actions he took. He believes the resolution is “without a doubt” politically motivated.

“It doesn’t seem very genuine,” he said.

Borton said the resolution isn’t politically motivated and the state Constitution should always be followed.

“Is there a good time for the Constitution to be followed?” Borton questioned. “Yes, always.”

Curley also said there are no political motivations behind the effort, which he’s been working on for about 10 years.

He expects the issue to be challenged in court at some point in the future.

“Whatever is done will be done in court,” Curley said.

How To Fix?

There are a few possible solutions to resolve the representation issue, but none are simple.

One would be to reduce the number of people apportioned to each district so that Weston is guaranteed a dedicated representative and senator. On a state level, this would cause the number of representatives in the House to swell to possibly more than 1,000, Case said.

Neiman said he wouldn’t support that change, nor does he believe many Wyomingites would either.

Another possibility would be to use weighted voting so that the number of legislators would only be increased in smaller counties to fulfill the constitution, while the legislators from larger populous counties would then be given more than one vote to fulfill the one man, one vote concept.

Borton said Gray supports the resolution, but wants to wait until after the upcoming elections for it to be addressed. Gray was not immediately available to comment to Cowboy State Daily.

Case said he doesn’t see any situation where the Weston County proposal could succeed and hopes that it will only serve as a learning experience.

“I am concerned how it will play out as a doomed attack. They cannot possibly prevail,” he said. “Who will right the ship? The best thing that could happen is the people will come to their senses and see what the law actually is.”

Leo Wolfson can be reached at leo@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Leo Wolfson

Politics and Government Reporter