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Gail Symons: Slow Down On Changing Wyoming Election Law

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By Gail Symons, guest columnist

Senate File 145 proposes Primary Election Run-offs and establishes a third election when a race does not result in a 51% majority. 

There is a February 2021 resolution from the State GOP Central Committee that raises this request, along with another from January 2021 that calls for eliminating absentee voting with the exception of Military and “valid reasons.” 

In 2018, Absentee voting was at 25% and increased to just under 50% in 2020. This data indicates the opinion of the State GOP may not reflect the interests of state Republicans.

Popular vote

There are strong arguments to be made on either side of the plurality vs. majority debate for declaring winners in our elections.  To rush through a change of such magnitude without the full vetting and participation of the electorate is both poor policy and poor representation. 

One of the primary benefits of legislative interim topics is providing time to gather information, clarify the problem/issue to be addressed, give the public full opportunity to weigh in with their opinions, explore alternative solutions, understand the impact of changes to be made and craft a bill that covers all necessary statutory changes.  None of this has occurred for this bill. 

Redistricting

Upon completion of the Census held every 10 years, states are required to incorporate the census into political districts through their legislative process no later than the following year.  This requirement has been upheld in the Supreme Court. 

Census data was initially expected to be available at the end of this month which would have provided the Joint Corporations Committee the full interim to hold meetings, take public testimony and work through required changes and their impact.  The delay constricts the process from 10 months to four months.  The final plan will be debated and passed in the short Budget Session Feb/Mar 2022.

Only after enacted into law can the Counties (Clerks/Commissioners) begin their work on precinct changes to ensure that these align with the districts.  Best case scenario is end of April 2022.  

Currently the filing period is 13 May 2022 through 27 May 2022 which provides little leeway for delays even in the existing election schedule.  The timing to provide for a third election would back the filing period in to February, the first half of the legislative session.  

The County Clerks twisted themselves into knots trying to figure out a way to make this work.  It simply cannot.

Timing/schedule

Outside of the ten-year redistricting cycle, the current election schedule has been carefully established to allow for processes dependent on the outcome of the Legislative Budget Session. 

This includes the statutorily established budget processes for the Counties.  The Commissioners and Clerks are heavily loaded to complete their budgets on time as the Clerks begin the election preparations.

Without going into the underlying details which can be obtained from your County Clerk, the Primary would have to move to the third Tuesday in May with a filing period the last two weeks in February.

If a run-off is necessary, it would take place on the third Tuesday in August.  The Campaign season will then be from March to November instead of just June to November.

It is critical to note that this now has the campaign season overlap with the Legislative Session by two weeks.  Is there anyone who thinks this would be a good idea?  In the current 2021 session with the elections more than a year away, there are already far too many Legislators who appear to be focused on campaign sound bites and reelection rather than good policy making.

Cost

Adding a Primary Run-off will incur a one-time expenditure of $188,000 for software changes to Wyoming Voter Registration System which would have to include changes in Campaign Finance as well.

Based on historical costs for running each of the two existing elections, the clerks have identified and additional cost per biennium of $1.1M to run 3rd election in the 23 Counties. 

This would be an unfunded mandate to the Counties without the the appropriation added to the proposed bill.  This will also need to be included in standard budgets going forward.  

In a time when every single program is being scrutinized and potentially cut to cover the $325M budget shortfall, committing even that relatively small increase is premature given the concerns already identified above.  

The other costs not addressed are to potential candidates who may have to raise funds for three elections rather than two.  This could result in an increased barrier for all but the wealthiest or best funded candidates.

Voter Participation

The final consideration for Primary run-off elections is the current state of voter participation.  Over the last 42 years, as the eligible population has increased steadily, voter registration and voter participation has steadily declined in both Primary and General Elections although the General has been at a flatter rate. 

Depending on whether it is a Presidential cycle or Gubernatorial, the number of voters in the General Election are either 200% or 150% of the Primary.

In the 2020 Primary, participation was 61% of all registered voters including a slightly higher rate for Republicans at 64%.  That is 89,790 voters who stayed home for the Primary including 60,590 Republicans.  

According to various sources, run-off election turnout is even lower than regular Primary elections.  Fair Vote reports that “rates often plunge so low that the democratic legitimacy of the elections is cast into doubt.”

Much has been made about the 2018 Republican Primary results for Governor where Mark Gordon received only 33% of the votes cast in a field of 6 contenders.  The claim made is that a plurality is not a legitimate win in that 67% of the voters did not vote for him. 

There were 61,177 registered Republicans who chose to not vote in the Primary.  In other words, only 43% of registered Republicans actively voted for someone OTHER than Gordon, giving him the majority.  This is further supported by his having the highest approval rating of all US Governors in 2019.

It is worth noting that in 2020, Republicans who did submit a ballot in the Primary only voted for precinct people 41% of the time.  Given the turnout rate, that means the County Central Committees only reflect the votes of 25% of the registered Republicans, the same rate as in 2018.  That reflects an even lower level of support than the 33% for the Governor.

Wyoming Elections have the highest possible voting integrity due to existing statutes, rules and guidance from the Secretary of State, processes and procedures by our County Clerks and the many dedicated volunteers at the polls. 

To maintain that integrity and assure continued confidence, a change of this magnitude demands the in-depth investigation and broad inclusion of the public made possible through a legislative interim topic.  The idea of Ranked Choice Voting (aka Instant Run-off) was raised as a more practical, efficient and less costly alternative.  That and other alternatives should be investigated IF a change is warranted.

Jim Willox, former Wyoming GOP Chairman, testified in Senate Corporations that this is based on a false premise that our elections are broken.  He reminded the committee that if not for the run-off elections in Georgia, Republicans would control the US Senate.  We must proceed with caution.

Gail Symons, from Sheridan County, runs a non-partisan site on the Wyoming Legislature called Civics307.com. Retirement from the US Navy and General Electric provides her time for civic engagement and community service.

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