Primary election

Election volunteers work during the Aug. 18 primary election at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Casper.

Early voting for the Nov. 3 general election is already underway in Wyoming, and election officials expect a repeat of the unprecedented early-and absentee-voting turnout that boosted voter numbers in the August primary.

There’s a lot at stake, for both Wyoming and the nation. Wyoming faces a massive economic crisis brought on by the pandemic and shrinking energy industries.

Robust participation in the upcoming general election, Gov. Mark Gordon said recently, is vital because the results will shape the nation and the quality of life in Wyoming for decades to come.

“[Voting] is a responsibility we as citizens have. It can never be more important than this year,” Gordon said at a press conference in August. “This is probably one of the most important elections that we’ve ever had, and it’s especially important for Wyoming.”

Today, some 445,025 Wyoming residents are of voting age; only 31.5% of them cast a ballot in the Aug. 18 primary, according to state figures.

Whether the course that Wyoming chooses for its future reflects the will of its people might depend on how many eligible voters register and cast a ballot in November and in the future.

Wyoming isn’t an outlier when it comes to voter participation; 47.9% of voting-age residents in Wyoming cast a ballot in the 2018 midterm elections compared to roughly 50% nationally, according to FairVote. But the state also lagged behind Colorado (61.4%), Utah (50.6%), Idaho (48.6%), Montana (61.3%), South Dakota (53.1%), and Nebraska (51.5%) the same year.

Many of those states have implemented voter access reforms in recent years. Can Wyoming follow their footsteps?

Wyoming already employs a number of voter access programs many tout as effective.

Wyoming is among 35 states that allow “no excuse” absentee voting, which means a voter doesn’t have to justify or give any reason for requesting an absentee ballot. Voters can register at the polls on Election Day and can even change party affiliation when they show up. Registered voters can cast their ballot early, by mail (absentee ballot) or in person at official election sites. Those who are already registered to vote, don’t have to present an ID to vote in person on election day.

The Wyoming Legislature recently passed a law authorizing tribal IDs for voter registration, addressing a long-standing concern on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

In 2017, a new law streamlined the process for nonviolent felons who serve out their sentences to restore their right to vote. More than 400 former felons in Wyoming have restored their voting rights so far this year, according to the Wyoming Department of Corrections.

Unlike dozens of states, Wyoming hasn’t enacted more restrictive registration and voting rules in recent years, such as stricter ID requirements or curtailed voting hours and early voting opportunities. However, stricter ID laws and measures to prevent “cross-over” party registration in primary elections are perennial issues before the Wyoming Legislature.

The Wyoming Secretary of State’s office took additional measures this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Every voter already registered in June received a notice from the state inviting them to request an absentee ballot — an option that many Wyoming voters didn’t know was available to them. The office also used CARES Act funding to promote the state’s largest get-out-the-vote effort in recent history: Let’s Vote Wyo.

Between now and the general election, the state will spend twice as much money on the Let’s Vote Wyo campaign — reaching potential voters via newspaper, radio and social media advertising — than it did ahead of the August primary, according to Secretary of State Ed Buchanan’s office.

In spite of, or due in part to, the coronavirus pandemic, voter turnout in this year’s primary election exceeded expectations and bucked historic trends. The state saw the highest absentee ballot count in its history.

“Voters listened and proved that even when times are tough — perhaps especially when times are tough — Wyoming votes,” Secretary of State Edward Buchanan said in a press release after the 2020 primary.

But can the state close its participation gap?

WyoFile spoke with voters, election reform advocates and election officials about potential areas for reform or improvement, and how Wyoming compares to approaches by other states.

In terms of voter registration, Wyoming does not offer so-called “motor-voter” registration where eligible voters are either automatically registered or allowed to voluntarily register while obtaining or renewing a driver’s license or while otherwise conducting business with state agencies.

The state does not offer online voter registration and does not participate in the National Mail Voter Registration Form program. Voters must register in person, or by mail. To register by mail, the registration form must be notarized; Wyoming is the only state with this notary requirement.

In addition, a voter’s registration is purged if they did not vote in the most recent general election.

Voter registration drives, unless they are conducted by a county elections clerk, are limited in Wyoming. Registration forms require a notary, unless registering at a county elections office or in the presence of county election officials. Voters must turn in their own ballots.

When it comes to voter registration reforms, there are models out there Wyoming could look to as well. Since 2015, fifteen states, and the District of Columbia, have enacted some type of automatic voter registration with results that suggest it reduces cost and increases voter registration and turnout. Eighteen states have so-called “motor voter” laws.

Only 10 states, including Wyoming, do not offer some form of online voter registration, according to Ballotpedia. Online voter registration, such as in Colorado, can improve access for potential voters, while also validating eligibility across existing state agencies, such as a department of motor vehicles — a potential adaptation that might register more voters while also addressing social distancing concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Brennan Center For Justice.

Some states, including Colorado, are replacing automatic voter roll purging methods with systems that cross-check other state agency databases to proactively update a voter’s registration with in-state changes of address and other status updates.

Waiving the state’s notary requirement would allow for more voter registration drive efforts, advocates say. Registration applications are vetted for eligibility and authenticity when received by county election officials.

Wyoming lawmakers are considering measures to increase access to online notaries, while some advocates lobby for doing away with the online notary requirement altogether, like all other states. They claim that the notary requirement is duplicative because registration applications are already vetted for eligibility and authenticity when received by county election officials.

Although Wyoming allows for “no excuse” absentee ballot voting, it does not automatically send absentee ballots to registered voters. Absentee ballots also do not come with pre-paid postage.

At least five states automatically send mail-in ballots to registered voters, and more are considering the move in a response to the coronavirus pandemic. Although Wyoming doesn’t automatically send a mail-in or absentee ballot to all registered voters, there are no limits on how many registered voters can request an absentee ballot.

Approximately 17 states include pre-paid postage with mail-in or absentee ballots; some advocates claim the cost can be offset by smaller staffing necessary for in-person voting.

In addition, most states are reviewing protocols and logistics required to provide more drop-off boxes for mail-in and absentee ballots in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Wyoming does not have open primaries. Voters must choose to affiliate with either the Democratic or the Republican party, which limits them to a party-specific ballot in the primary election. As a result, there are sometimes no candidates to choose from in a race, and a party-affiliated voter cannot choose a candidate in a hotly contested race in the other party.

As a result, Wyoming sees a lot of “cross-over” voting in primary elections. In response, the legislature is continually asked to consider bills that attempt to limit cross-over voting. At least 20 states have open primaries.

Some election officials say Wyoming’s primary election (usually in August) is too close to the November election. It creates an undue burden to certify primary election results while also preparing ballots and other logistics or the general election.

Nearly every potential barrier in Wyoming is also considered by some a strength that helps to ensure security and faith in Wyoming elections.

State election officials, and others, say Wyoming’s registration, voting and elections systems do work differently than other states that are moving toward greater online access, all mail-in voting and so-called “opt-out” measures. But that doesn’t mean Wyoming’s systems are broken, insufficient or even outdated. In many ways, the state’s system has been built around what works well for Wyoming voters.

“It’s tailored for you and me — for the people of Wyoming,” Wyoming Secretary of State spokesman Will Dinneen said.

Still, if faith in Wyoming elections and a sense of accountability to the electorate at all levels of elected representation is a priority, then it might be measured by voter turnout. What can Wyoming do to build upon what it already does well to get more people to register and vote?

Wyoming has a menu of reforms and modernization efforts to choose from that are aimed to get more people to register and vote.

Several states in the Rockies and across the West have reformed voter access laws and modernized systems to include automatic registration and to expand vote-by-mail opportunities. Doing so takes some upfront investment and years to implement, which voter reform advocates say can pay off both financially and in terms of voter turnout.

Several advocates for greater voter access in Wyoming, such as the Equality State Policy Center and League of Women Voters of Wyoming, point to Colorado and what’s referred to as the “Colorado model.” In 2013, Colorado passed the Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act, and followed up with more measures to make participating in a democracy — registering and voting — more of an opt-out detail than opt-in.

Audrey Kline is national policy director for the National Vote At Home Institute. She said several states have adopted aspects of the Colorado model, particularly the move toward more mail-in voting. “It’s about how you view your government and how you view voting rights,” Kline said. “It’s an entirely different way of looking at elections.”

For example, eligible voters have the opportunity to register online, in person, or while obtaining or renewing a driver’s license. Ballots are mailed out to every registered Colorado voter with multiple options to mail-in or drop-off ballots.

The state also maintains a voter registration roll that tracks changing addresses, which reduces voter-roll purging. Rather than fully rely on precinct-by-precinct polling centers, Colorado increased the number of county-by-county Election Day “voting centers” where voters can register, change their party affiliation and cast a ballot.

Kline said one of the most positive results is an increase in how many voters choose candidates in local elections.

“We’ve seen increases in turnout in state elections and local elections as voters become more acquainted with the system,” Kline said. “They get a ballot, research an issue and cast their ballot. You see a more informed and more engaged electorate.”

Voter participation in Colorado increased from 66% in the 2008 general election to 72% in the 2016 general election, according to the National Vote at Home Institute. Ninety-three percent of those who cast a ballot in 2016 did so by mail, according to the institute, while the state’s “cost per voter” dropped by 33%. Colorado’s voter turnout in the 2018 midterm election was second only to Minnesota.

Colorado’s reforms have served as a model for many other states, Kline said, including Utah, Arizona, Montana, California, Oregon and Washington. The vast majority of voters in those states are voting by mail, Kline said, adding that California and Nevada plan to mail ballots to registered voters in this year’s general election.

“And those (vote by mail) numbers are about to explode even further,” Kline said.

Although Wyoming’s registration and voting systems might be considered more analog and hands on than programs elsewhere, state legislators generally agree with the Secretary of State’s office that it’s working well.

“There has been some reluctance, at least in the Senate, to go beyond the absentee ballot system we have now,” Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions joint committee co-chairman Sen. Bill Landon (R-Casper) said. “Online voter registration has not come up this interim, but like voting issues in general, it could very well be seen as an interim topic next year.”

The success of robust voting and secure elections relies a lot on county clerks around the state, Landon said, who do a “rock star” job of making the system work for voters.

One of the top-line reforms that advocacy groups such as the Equality State Policy Center and League of Women Voters of Wyoming want to see is to do away with the notary requirement for registering by mail.

“You can register at the polls and that’s a big asset,” League of Women Voters of Wyoming organizer Marguerite Herman said. “However, it’s my belief that if you are registered before the day of the election you are more invested in who is running and checking things out. Also, [candidates] will court your votes if you are registered. The day of election, if you’re not already registered, it’s too easy to not vote.”

Jen Simon is senior policy advisor for the nonpartisan Equality State Policy Center. She said greater voter access and participation would give residents of the state more faith in their local government and, in turn, more accountability among those who are elected.

“Anything we can do that encourages greater participation in our democracy stands to benefit everyone,” Simon said. “Our democracy thrives when more people participate.”

Both Simon and Herman noted that much of the Wyoming Legislature’s hesitation about moving toward more online registration and mail-in voting lies in concerns about fraud. They say those concerns are overblown. Simon pointed to research by the Brennan Center for Justice that indicates that there’s been only about 31 instances of fraud out of 1 billion votes cast nationally between 2000 and 2014.

“Subsequent research confirms this,” Simon said. “Voter fraud simply isn’t a problem. Wyoming has statutes that protect voters and the integrity of the system.”

Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne said the state party doesn’t see any need for major reformations to voting and elections in the state. Although it does want to see more rural polling places and voter participation.

Moving toward more online registration and vote-by-mail opportunities isn’t necessarily a priority for the Republican party, according to Eathorne. Election security and potential for voter fraud remains a concern. The Wyoming GOP has faith in the state’s system as it exists today, he said, although there may be a need to consider measures that allow for modernizing voter access in the future.

“We like to conduct business person-to-person, and we like to see the county clerk,” Eathorne said. “The public understands [Wyoming’s voting system is rooted in] more security. It takes just a little more effort.

“Wyoming has a bullet-proof system,” he added, “as long as it’s followed.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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