Primary Elections Aren't Likely To Change Soon

Jan 25, 2019

Laramie Senator Chris Rothfuss
Credit Bob Beck

This week the legislature's Senate Corporations and Elections Committee entertained a couple of bills that would change how people vote in the primary election. One was a Republican Party driven bill that would keep people from changing parties after a specific date.

It was crafted in response to last year's GOP gubernatorial primary where some think democrats helped determine the outcome by crossing over and voting in the Republican primary. Committee Chairman Bill Landen of Casper was not convinced that something needed to be done.

"I'm really not aware of any election that was tainted that much by that. You know it has not been decided by crossover, let's put it that way…so yeah, I need to be convinced that government needs to ride in and lock things down."

However, another issue did get the attention of lawmakers. And that's the fact that you can win a primary with a limited amount of support. Senator Cale Case notes that many times Republicans run a number of candidates for a seat.

"I also ran in a crowded party primary once in a statewide race and it is pretty frustrating because you get these narrow slivers of votes and it doesn't seem like it's the best way to move forward the person with the best chance of leading Wyoming," Case said.

During testimony on the issue, Laramie Senator Chris Rothfuss explained it this way.

"80 percent of the people might think you were the worst candidate on the ballot, but you got 20 points and others only got 15, so you move on to the general."

Rothfuss proposed an idea that the committee supported. Wyoming would have a primary where everyone could vote, no matter their political affiliation. Voters would select a first and second choice and possibly more and after it was sorted out you would have the top two candidates.

"Those two would then have the opportunity to have a very competitive general election from that point forward," Rothfuss said.

That could end being two Republicans going head to head. The bill was approved by the committee, but then soundly thrashed on the Senate floor. Part of the concern is that Wyoming would have to buy a lot of new equipment, which would be expensive. Senator Case thinks the idea is worth studying further, but so is another idea. Putting the primary in the spring and if someone doesn't have a decisive victory there would be a run-off election later in the year.

"Moving the primary up and having a runoff. And that would be an exclusively a party election. I think our county clerks would not be in favor of that because of the workload, but that would give us better results," Case said.

But that also would mean that counties would have to have a second election which Senator Landen points out costs money.

"You're always concerned about the cost of elections and it's too bad that we have to worry about that, but you do have to balance the expenses with all of the revenue we do not have."

But Landen admits that an August primary is also not ideal and an earlier primary would probably bring about a higher turnout. While that might be true, Marguerite Herman of the League of Women Voters says the way it's currently done is still compelling and interesting.

"You know the fact that they have many many candidates running does make it, makes it contentious. You'd think they'd be happy to have such interest in winning their party's nomination. I'd view that as a feather in my cap."

Secretary of State Ed Buchanan wants to improve elections including ways to get rid of dark money where unknown groups are attacking a particular candidate. He's not sure what the actual solution is, but he welcomes a legislative study.

"Oh I would absolutely revel in that, you know I'm a political science guy from way back and I find it fascinating the way different states conduct their elections and so I'd absolutely welcome a study on this and look at a way where everybody would be happy," Buchanan said.

But whether or not that would actually happen remains to be seen.