Legislators study early count of absentee votes
RIVERTON — State legislators plan to consider allowing county clerks in Wyoming to process absentee ballots before election day.
The idea came from the Wyoming Association of County Officer Clerks Association, whose legislative committee co-chair Julie Freese – also Fremont County’s clerk — said it was necessary to process absentee ballots ahead of election day this year due to an influx of early voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She estimated that Fremont County received more than twice the number of absentee ballots than typical in 2020.
“There was going to be no way for our absentee boards, as large as we could get them, to get all that information done by election night,” Freese told the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee last week. “(So) we got a directive on how to do the absentee voting a little bit earlier than normal.”
Committee chair Wyoming Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, guessed that use of the absentee voting system will remain at higher rates in the future, and that change will make a “difference in workload” for county officials facilitating local elections.
“Something probably should be done,” he said.
The county clerks have not yet come to consensus on an appropriate timeframe for absentee ballot counting, but this week Carbon County Clerk Gwen Bartlett said “we’re looking (at) possibly the Thursday to Friday before election day.”
Committee member Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, voiced concern about that timeline, wondering whether poll workers might be able to leak early results to the public.
“That would be very hot information,” he said. “People would like to know that information. Candidates would like to know that information. “You could even strategize around that information. (There’s) potential for risk and changing the outcome of an election — versus just waiting. … What if we just took more time on the other side rather than try to cram it in before?”
Zwonitzer pointed out that, in the past, absentee vote totals have been added to election results at the end of the evening — sometimes causing political races to end dramatically.
“Incumbents tend to have an advantage in absentees, so a couple of us always think we’re going to lose and then absentees save us,” he said. “This would change that system up, where you could perhaps release absentee votes right (when) the polls close.”
Bartlett said the issue has more to do with staff resources, which are stretched thin on election day.
Both she and Freese noted that strict rules would be in place to ensure no results would be released early even if absentee ballots were counted days before the election.
But Case countered that Wyoming residents currently are concerned about “election credibility.”
“You can assure us… that there’s no way those results can get out, (but) I don’t think the members of the public really would believe that,” he said. “We have that credibility problem.”
Freese questioned Case, asking him where he sees weaknesses in the Wyoming voting system.
“Do you think that (the) judges have a way to know how it’s rolling and they’re saying something?” she asked. “Or is there something you think they’re seeing on a machine? … I’m just trying to figure out where you’re thinking of, (because) we can maybe look at that. maybe we’re missing something.”
Later, Case said “I absolutely am convinced that every clerk in Wyoming does it correctly, that there’s no chance of fraud.”
But, he continued, “You’ve kind of got to think of what the public thinks about it. ‘They were counting ballots before the election.’ And I just think there’s a piece of that.
“It’s better to wait for the results on the back end rather than try to speed it up.”
The county clerks plan to bring a more concrete proposal to the legislative committee during its next meeting, when lawmakers may decide to have a bill drafted to allow for absentee ballots to be counted early in Wyoming.