Lawmakers advance runoff election legislation

WYOMING -- Wyoming lawmakers advanced a proposal Thursday to shift the state’s elections to a runoff system. Conservative activists favor runoffs as a way to avoid the type of vote-splitting they believe has helped elevate more moderate candidates in Republican primaries.

The Joint Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions voted 7-6 to advance the proposal, which was sponsored by Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett. 

This came roughly three months after the committee soundly rejected a similar proposal. At that meeting, committee members voted to draft bills to create either an open primary or a ranked-choice voting system. This time, however, members eschewed those proposals for a runoff option following contentious debates between Wyoming Republican Party officials, lawmakers and Democratic activists. 

Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, who expressed concerns with the potential implications of a move to a runoff election, was the tie-breaking vote.  

Pressure to reimagine Wyoming’s election system ramped up following the 2018 governor’s race.

In that election, Mark Gordon won a five-way Republican primary with roughly one-third of the vote. Half of the vote was split between Harriet Hageman and Foster Friess, both considered to be more conservative candidates.

Friess, who finished more than 9,000 votes behind Gordon, blamed Democratic voters switching parties on the day of his election for his loss. (Numbers released by the Secretary of State’s office following the vote showed that the impact of crossover voting on the 2018 election was not enough to change the election’s outcome.) 

In the ensuing years, activists in the Wyoming Republican Party have pushed for legislation to limit the trend of crossover voting in Wyoming’s elections. In recent months, a runoff system has emerged as a centerpiece of the Wyoming GOP’s policy objectives as party activists have sought to avoid vote-splitting in the race to defeat U.S. Rep Liz Cheney. 

A runoff proposal brought in the 2021 legislative session failed. Former President Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., had attempted on Twitter to rally lawmakers in support of the measure.

Enthusiasm for runoff elections, however, has not ebbed. Neiman revived the idea with his bill proposal Thursday. 

Though colleagues chastised Neiman for drafting a pledge to support his runoff legislation ahead of a June meeting in Cheyenne, the Wyoming House Freedom Caucus — which Neiman is a member of — released a statement on “election integrity” supportive of his runoff bill. 

The state party has also advocated for its passage.

When they rejected Neiman’s proposal in June, lawmakers cited county clerks’ and the Wyoming Secretary of State’s assertions that such a system would be next to impossible to implement before the 2022 election.

Lawmakers would still be in the process of redrawing district lines based on the new U.S. Census, LSO staff told lawmakers, and without an amendment to the Constitution to change the deadlines, the timing of the election and redistricting would not match up. County clerks — who administer elections on the local level — would also face the challenge of carrying out redistricting and an election simultaneously, the Wyoming County Clerk’s Association told lawmakers, which would be too heavy a lift.

Runoff elections were also expected to be administratively and financially burdensome, state and local elections officials said. Not only would clerks’ offices be required to administer an additional election, but the state would also have to foot an estimated $1.3 million bill to carry out that election, the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office said.

However, the Wyoming Republican Party declared election reform ahead of the 2022 Republican Primary to be their “No. 1 priority,” both in public statements and comments to lawmakers.

“We want to see 50 percent plus one, clear winners, to represent us in these offices,” Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne said in Sheridan Thursday.  

To accommodate these concerns, members drafted several alternative proposals to rebuild the state’s elections system to ensure a victor emerges with the clear approval of a majority of voters, which members considered on Thursday. 

One proposal would have created an “open primary” system in Wyoming, which would eliminate the requirement for candidates to declare a party at the primary stage and ensure only the top two vote-getters advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. While the least expensive alternative presented, lawmakers tabled the proposal over concerns it could diminish the influence of political parties, which many lawmakers said serve a critical role in the state’s electoral processes. 

A second proposal would have established a “ranked-choice” voting system. Deployed by the Wyoming Democratic Party in its 2020 caucuses, ranked-choice voting offers a means to rank candidates on the ballot and can trigger an “instant runoff” to identify the most popular candidate in the instance that one candidate does not receive a majority. 

“It’s a caucus, but on paper,” Nina Hebert, a Democratic Party official who helped orchestrate that caucus, said during the meeting.

Ultimately, the Wyoming GOP got what it lobbied for Thursday. Lawmakers soundly defeated ranked-choice voting and advanced Neiman’s runoff bill after amending it to take effect in 2024 and moving that it be put “to the people.”

Days before the vote, the state party urged members on social media to attend the committee meeting and voice their opposition to ranked-choice voting. At the the meeting, Wyoming Republican Party leadership and supporters overwhelmed a limited number of left-leaning activists in the room who were organized by the Sheridan County Democrats. Those lobbying in favor of the runoff bill included Eathorne, Wyoming GOP Vice Chair Dave Holland, Wyoming’s Republican National Committeeman Corey Steinmetz, Uinta County State Committeeman Karl Allred and Carbon County Republican Party Chairman Joey Correnti.

In a presentation to lawmakers, Steinmetz said a county clerk in Maine told him the paperwork produced by ranked-choice voting there was overwhelming and elderly voters struggled with it. He added the clerk raised concerns about the financial cost too, and that it could sow distrust in elections by causing confusion.

“What happens when we sow distrust in our elections? [People] do not bother to vote,” Steinmetz said. “I don’t think that’s our goal, to encourage people not to vote.” 

A comprehensive study of Maine county clerks’ experiences with ranked choice voting showed the administrative burdens to be minimal, its cost negligible and public support high.

Despite a late amendment to make ranked-choice voting optional at the municipal level only, lawmakers defeated the measure by an 8-5 margin.

Lawmakers did pass a retooled version of Neiman’s runoff bill, however. Though Neiman told lawmakers he had worked with county clerks to assuage their concerns with his initial bill — committee members still expressed reservations.

Several lawmakers expressed concerns that the initial primary election in May would come too quickly on the heels of the legislative session, creating the potential for legislators to “campaign from the floor” of the Wyoming Capitol and potentially, give themselves an unfair advantage.  

“I worry that this is just going to open [elections] up to more money, a lot of it from out of state and from undisclosed means,” Kris Korfanta, a Sheridan County Democrat who works with the anti-dark-money group, Wyoming Promise, told lawmakers. “It’s also going to take representatives from the people’s work. They’re going to be more concerned about raising money for the election, take us away from a citizen legislature, and it will prevent people from running who can’t afford to get the money.”

Wyoming Republican Party officials repeatedly reminded lawmakers that runoff elections are the party’s top priority ahead of the 2022 elections. Eathorne said members of the GOP would “be watching which legislators are supporting and which are opposing” the runoff bill, drawing a harsh rebuke from former Republican lawmaker Bruce Burns.

“I get concerned when I see the chairman of the Republican Party sit up here and tell you that they’re going to see who’s for it and who’s against it,” Burns said. “Any legislator who is craven enough to change their vote because of intimidation tactics doesn’t deserve to be reelected.” 

Some expressed concern about the implications of the bill should it formally become law.

Zwonitzer, who teaches political science, raised concerns about the prospect of “earned media.” Zwonitzer and several commenters said they believed the bill could result in lawmakers taking advantage of the abbreviated and traditionally yeoman-like budget session to bolster their chances for re-election, either by trying to get into their hometown press or doing daily radio updates as a means to gain advantage over their opponents.

“It fundamentally alters how the budget session operates,” he said.

Robert Davidson, a member of the Sheridan County Democratic Party and former election judge, believes the GOP’s push to change voting laws in Wyoming is not to ensure election integrity, but to exert greater influence over the elections themselves, he said. 

“Let’s say they get some of the reforms passed into law and, in ‘24 and ‘26, this faction within the Republican Party doesn’t get the result they want,” Davidson said. “I really wonder what they’re going to do then.”

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