CASPER – A state legislative committee voted Monday to pursue two bills that would significantly change the way Wyoming’s statewide elections are run as soon as next year.
One bill would create a ranked choice system. The other would institute an open primary.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivision voted to draft the bills after initially discussing legislation that would require a runoff if one candidate did not receive a certain portion of the vote.
But doubts about the feasibility of implementing that approach by next year’s election led lawmakers to look elsewhere.
The effort to change Wyoming’s primary elections, which has been talked about for years, is gaining traction due to the increased desire to unseat Rep. Liz Cheney and the size of the field in the last gubernatorial election.
During the 2018 election, for example, Gov. Mark Gordon received less than 50 percent of the vote but won after several far-right candidates split the electorate. Cheney’s critics worry about a similar result in next year’s GOP House primary, which already features nine candidates.
“Liz Cheney’s vote to hold the president accountable for his actions has really been the catalyst for Wyoming to say, ‘We need to address this issue as immediately as possible,’” said chairman of the committee, Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne. “The governor’s race also added to it.”
One of the bills would implement a ranked-choice voting system if passed in next year’s budget session.
Right now, Maine is the only state that uses this system statewide.
Typically, a ranked-choice system requires voters to rank their candidates in order of preference, though no one is required to rank more than one.
Under this system, the electorate would only have to make one trip to the polls.
Multiple people who spoke on ranked choice acknowledged that it would take a public education campaign. The other approach would implement what’s called a “jungle primary,” or an open primary where the top two vote-getters move to the general election regardless of party. Neither candidate would need a majority.
If the legislation passed, Wyoming would join three other states that use such a method: Washington, California and Alaska.
“I am pleased that two separate bill drafts are moving forward,” Zwonitzer said.
While more committee members voted to move forward with the ranked-choice bill, Zwonitzer believes that the jungle primary bill would find more success in the full Legislature next year.
One of the main reasons the corporations committee voted to pursue the ranked-choice and jungle primary systems is because neither would require a runoff election.
Runoffs are triggered if no one candidate gets a certain share of the vote. Enacting such a system would be expensive and wouldn’t be ready until the 2024 elections.
Voting to draft the bills did not go by without some highly contentious moments, however.
Before the meeting, Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, was pushing lawmakers to sign a pledge to support some sort of election reform because “Wyoming has struggled with primary election integrity,” he wrote in an email to lawmakers.
Neiman’s pledge prompted backlash from other lawmakers.
Lawmakers on the committee — none of whom are freshmen — said that his request was unfair and lacked an understanding for how complex the situation was.
Rep. Shelly Duncan, R-Lingle, even described being “under duress” when being asked to sign it.
“I think you made like a freshman error to call everybody out on this and cause dissension when there’s not enough information on the table,” said Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander.
“Yeah, I’ve made some freshman errors, I guess,” Neiman later said.
Crook County Clerk Linda Fritz, who serves in Neiman’s district, told lawmakers that Wyoming’s elections system is already secure.
“We have worked our tails off to make sure that you have good elections, and we have not heard one single, solitary substantiated complaint that we have done something wrong,” Fritz said. “So until we hear that, I think the legislative body really needs to consider what laws you pass to correct something that isn’t wrong.”