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Lawmakers may create a new election agency

Rep. Zwonitzer on the floor.
Bob Beck
/
Wyoming Public Media

Last week out of the blue, the Legislature's Joint Corporations and Elections committee approved a motion to look into moving the elections division out of the Secretary of State's office.

The motion by Co-Chairman Dan Zwonitzer of Cheyenne is a reaction to comments by Casper Rep. Chuck Gray who's likely going to be the next Secretary of State. He won the primary and is running uncontested in the general election.

Gray has made it clear that he thinks the 2020 Presidential election was stolen and that he has concerns about the safety of Wyoming elections. Gray didn't agree to an interview with Wyoming Public Radio, but during an interview that aired on KGWN and KCWY television this summer, he said he wanted to ban ballot drop boxes among other things.

"We need all paper ballots. The fact that a few counties have moved off paper ballots, I think, is really wrong. And we need hand audits," said Gray.

During the campaign, Gray concerned some by saying he'd get rid of Secretary of State employees who didn't share his vision. Current Secretary of State Ed Buchanan has consistently said Wyoming's elections are extremely safe and talked some counties out of hand counting ballots.

Rep. Zwonitzer said he brought the proposal because he's concerned that Gray could damage how Wyoming runs its elections.

"We may be in a precarious position when it comes to election administration for the next four years. And I would feel more confident and comfortable, personally, having a separate operating agency of government made up of all five statewide elected officials who oversee a director of an office of elections," said Zwonitzer.

The idea is that everything that involves elections would be removed from the Secretary of State's office. Deputy Secretary of State Karen Wheeler said it would be a significant change.

"The Wyoming voter registration system, the campaign finance system, would also remove anything to do with candidate filing and applications for nomination prior to running for office. So there's quite a bit that would go with it if it were to be removed from this office," said Wheeler.

County attorneys are watching with interest. Platte County Clerk Malcolm Ervin is the President of the Wyoming County Clerks Association.

"You know really…it's a policy matter," Ervin said.

It's clerks who administer elections across the state. He said whatever the legislature does is fine by them. But Ervin added that the clerks continue to work to prove that Wyoming's elections are safe.

"The last year we've had more people interested in serving election judges and attending audits and testing equipment. And so we think that participation is important," he said.

Ervin added they have communicated with Gray and believe they've had a positive dialogue with him that he hopes will continue.

Douglas Sen. Brian Boner is a committee member who voted against the proposal. Boner said Gray was elected by a wide margin and lawmakers should honor that. But he also noted that many of the election reforms Gray wants to make will require legislative approval.

"I do understand some of the concerns. I think Representative Gray might have a hard time delivering on any of the promises that he made during the campaign season. But we also need to acknowledge the results of the election as well," he said.

One thing Boner is slightly nervous about is whether a number of people in the Secretary of State's office will leave or possibly be dismissed. One key official has left and the Elections Director is looking for a new job.

Wheeler said that's a real concern when it comes to the elections division.

"So I think you would need to ensure that staff remains that knows that system inside and out, knows if there is a glitch, how to fix it quickly. They work with the developer on that system as well. So I think that could be a concern, as well as with the campaign finance system," said Wheeler. "These are complex systems, they aren't something you buy off the shelf."

Years ago, the legislature removed duties from the State Superintendent and created a whole new department because of conflicts they had with her. Those changes were overturned by the Supreme Court and longtime Casper Sen. Charles Scott reminded committee members of that last week in opposing the motion.

The committee will further discuss the issue and consider draft legislation when it meets in October. Rep. Gray did not respond to requests for comment.

Bob Beck has been News Director of Wyoming Public Radio since 1988. During his time as News Director WPR has won over 100 national, regional and state news awards.
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