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Wyoming lawmakers may consider changing when primary elections occur

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When the Wyoming legislature begins its work, most of the focus will be on the state budget and redistricting. Any other bills will have to get two-thirds of the body to support them before they can be considered. One bill that could get a look is a priority of the Wyoming Republican Party and others who are trying to keep people from winning a contested primary without over 50 percent of the vote. The bill is House Bill 74. The legislature's Joint Corporations Committee defeated a similar bill late last year and Hulett Representative Chip Neiman wants to try again. He joined Bob Beck to discuss the concept.

Chip Neiman: To me, this legislation is non-partisan. This has to do with any party or whatever, whether you're Constitutional, Democrat, Libertarians, Republican, whatever. It's just a desire to be able to forward a candidate that has more than a plurality, but a majority of the folks that are voting, to send that candidate on to represent them in the general election.

So with Wyoming being such a heavily Republican identified state, the issue that I feel needs to be addressed is the fact that by and large, in my opinion, the elections take place in the primaries in Wyoming. And so when you have a group of candidates in a field that are running for some position, be it Representative, Senate, a national position, Governor, you've got a large number of candidates running out of that party. And the person that comes to the top can many times have a very small percentage of votes. So say you've got somebody that wins with 30 percent of the vote in a fairly large field, 70 percent of the people didn't vote for them.

And so my thought is, if you don't get 50 percent plus one vote out of your primary, then that would move it to the top two vote-getters and they would move on to the runoff. They then would have to diligently court and work desperately hard to be able to gather those other voters that voted for other candidates. They would share their views and their opinions, their desires and be able to relate to those folks. And to me, it gives us a better reflection of who's going to represent the party, that political affiliation in the general election. Rather than a plurality, I prefer and believe it is important that we would have a majority. I believe a runoff election would provide that opportunity for more discourse and more opportunity for people to be engaged in the process. And then those candidates would have much more impetus to get out and really court voters and get them informed, let them know what you stand for, and then I think that better provides the opportunity to be able to send a candidate who more closely reflects the views, the values and the beliefs of that particular party.

Bob Beck: So you would have that runoff election in September?

CN: No, it would be in August. I worked with the Secretary of State's office and the County Clerk's Association closely in developing this legislation and got the dates worked out with the clerks so that it would work. And they testified on the bill's behalf saying that this is implementable. So in order to make sure that we didn't disenfranchise anyone, we had to move the primary to May. And then if it's needed, a runoff would take place in August, because we have to have enough days in between to allow for military and anybody else to be able to get ballots to them, get them to vote and get them back and printed, get all that stuff done in an effort to make sure that we have time for everybody to make that decision if necessary. And then the general takes place in November. So the runoff would be in August if necessary, and it would move our primary to May.

BB: Now that your idea has a couple of components. As I recall, you've got the constitutional amendment that does need to pass that sort of sets the stage for this. Could you discuss that a little bit?

CN: Yes, the constitutional amendment is necessary only in redistricting years. Our state constitution (has a date) when the redistricting must be done in an effort to be able to identify the districts. So that the voters can all know where they're going to be voting and stuff like that. And that had to be worked through with the clerk's association.

So otherwise, the other four elections that happen every 10 years did not require a constitutional amendment, we could do it with just the runoff bill that I've got written. But we didn't want to have a situation where you had four elections that you didn't need (the constitutional amendment) and then a fifth election during a redistricting or a census year that you couldn't do it because of the dates that you had to have everything in by, which would not allow for the runoff.

So we created the constitutional amendment to tie with the runoff legislation, so that we don't have to revisit this. But once this is passed and if the voters in the state of Wyoming truly do want and support runoff elections, and this is going to go before them to change the Constitution, to allow it to also happen seamlessly and whether the year's election is during the redistricting or a census year, or just a regular year in between those districting years. And so that's the reasoning behind the constitutional amendment. It's not necessary for eight out of the 10 elections every two years, but in that redistricting or census year we need this.

I would hope for legislators to recognize that if they would pass (this) and give the people the opportunity to decide that they want to pass that constitutional amendment, we tied it to the runoff so that if the voters don't pass a constitutional amendment to change those dates, none of it goes.

So I believe it's a referendum that if we can do this and people can see their way clear to supporting it, it gives the people of the state of Wyoming the opportunity to say whether they really do want this or not. Quite honestly I get a lot of folks in my part of the country and around the state that really do want this, they liked the idea, they'd support it, they could see the value of it.

BB: My question has some selfishness in it. And so I'll preface that, but as somebody who has done live election coverage, certainly in many Novembers, very rarely do we have contested races in Wyoming, other than some local races. But the statewide races, the top elected officials, those have all been settled, as you pointed out in the primary.

Did you at all consider maybe just picking the top two people no matter what party they're in, and then just advance them into November for that general election. Which would certainly make that much more interesting?

CN: It would and (the legislative committee) talked a little bit about that. What you're talking about is a jungle primary. And that's where you just throw everybody into one (group) and the top two vote getters in that primary move forward.

I like the opportunity for there to be parties or political bodies that have different viewing perspectives, if you've got a Republican, (they) would be conservative and come through this process, and then be selected by the folks that support that viewpoint. You've got your strong Democratic candidate that would come and then they would be able to stand up in front of everybody in the state say, 'Hey, see what I offer? Here's what I got.'

If you did it the other way, you're talking about potentially that the Democrats would never see an opportunity in Wyoming anyway to have one of their candidates even come out. I mean it would be a very, very low potential in my mind for that to happen, because we are what they will consider a super-majority Republican state. And I testified to this in the corporations committee in Cheyenne, I would love to see Wyoming have a strong two-party system or three, but to be able to exchange the ideas, present your case and let the folks decide, I think is invaluable to the people of the state of Wyoming and to our nation.

BB: I'm curious, if you move the primary up to May, could you tie this in with national Presidential primaries and that sort of thing? Because we did see a few years back where Wyoming did get to be a player on both the Republican and Democratic side of things. Could we be involved in more traditional primary (Presidential) primary elections, that sort of thing?

CN: Absolutely. This would offer and afford those opportunities where they would be coming here. Because right now a lot of this is determined long before we really come onto the scene. This could bring much more focus to the state of Wyoming and would put us out where they're wanting to know what we think and care about what we're doing here. And they would make Wyoming a stop that they needed to make if they wanted to win. And I think they would invest more dollars in this state. I think it would put us in a position where we would have more in the conversation, which I think is vital. Especially considering we supply energy for the security of this nation. I think it's important to know what people in Wyoming want and what we're doing and how to protect and preserve what we have here so that we can do what we need to do to provide for our citizens. And I would love to see Wyoming on the stage saying hey, listen, we're a real player here and it matters what happens in Wyoming nationwide, not just statewide, but nationally. And I think this potentially could afford that opportunity. Yes.

Bob Beck retired from Wyoming Public Media after serving as News Director of Wyoming Public Radio for 34 years. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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