Governor vetoes ballot form bill, disappoints secretary of state
Mar. 17—CHEYENNE — Gov. Mark Gordon vetoed a ballot form bill Friday that he argued could confuse voters and suppress absentee voting.
He explained his reasoning for the veto of Senate File 131 in a letter addressed to Secretary of State Chuck Gray, but started with defending Wyoming's election integrity. The governor said election integrity and security were campaign issues for several candidates, which led to bills being brought forward to address those concerns and follow through on campaign promises in the general session.
"I want to be clear. At no time have I been presented with facts of fraud, mismanagement, or malfeasance in Wyoming's election process. Even so, over the past month, I have signed those bills which strengthen election integrity and security, such as codifying existing election rules," he wrote.
However, he said the prohibition on delivery of unsolicited ballot forms bill was "superfluous and potentially confusing" when it came to his desk.
The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Lynn Hutchings, R-Cheyenne, and backed by the Wyoming Secretary of State's Office.
Although there were amendments before SF 131 made it to final reading in the House, it was a small bill originally designed to bar anyone except a county clerk or the secretary of state from distributing "an absentee ballot request form by mail, email, or any other means, which claims to be an official elected document, to any qualified elector."
Gordon referenced an incident during the last election cycle that inspired the policy in a hope to "address the possibility for voter confusion and subsequent irritation brought about by the distribution of certain campaign materials in the last election." He said the vain attempt to prompt absentee voting included a mailer with a misleading marking on the envelope alleging it was an official election document.
The governor didn't name the candidate who sent out the mailers in his letter, but Secretary of State Gray named former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., as the culprit in a response to the veto sent out Friday.
"This was meant to address a specific problem identified in the last election, in which Liz Cheney's campaign sent out predatory absentee ballot request forms containing official language as part of a mass mailing campaign," he said. "Liz Cheney's arrogant move undermined voter confidence and is part of a troubling trend across our country of organizations sending out these request forms in bad faith."
Gordon said he understood that the assertion of the document could cause confusion or anger among some voters, but he noted that at no time did the tactic put Wyoming's elections at risk of losing integrity or security. He attributed this to a Wyoming law that requires qualified electors to contact their county clerk and submit the necessary identifying information in order to receive a ballot and vote in an election.
In the end, the key factor in his decision to veto the bill was the removal of language the Senate adopted. Their amendment prevented only the distribution of a document that "claims to be an official election document," and he said it dealt directly with potential confusion created by a misleading mailer.
"Regrettably, some members of the House saw fit to take action to strike this useful Senate amendment while a number of its members were temporarily not on the floor," he wrote in his letter. "Without the benefit of the Senate's clarifying language, the intent of the legislation has been muddled to the point where signing SF 131 as currently written could well result in unintended consequences that would compromise election confidence and integrity.
"Moreover, in its current form, the bill might provide a means to inappropriately suppress proper absentee voting," Gordon concluded.
Secretary of State Gray didn't share the same opinion on the amendment leading to its veto.
"The convoluted amendments adopted in the Senate defeated the purpose of the bill, and the original language was ultimately restored by the House of Representatives," he said. "Our office worked closely with both the sponsor of the bill, as well as members of both chambers of the Legislature, to ensure the best version possible reached the governor's desk."
Gray said in a statement that he was disappointed and disagreed with the governor, as in its final form it would have banned the practice of sending out unsolicited ballot request forms.
He added that this version of the bill received a 54-5-3 third-reading vote directly after the removal of the language was passed, and concurrence was met by the Senate.
"I'm further perplexed by the statement that the House amendment was passed because a number of House members weren't on the floor," Gray said in a text message to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. "It was an amendment brought directly before the final vote, and there were only three people out 62 off the floor for the final vote."
When the bill was brought to the floor for third reading in the House on Feb. 28, some lawmakers were missing to attend to a bill signing with the governor. There were four missing state representatives for the vote on the amendment, and three who didn't partake in the final vote as a whole.
The amendment narrowly passed, 30-28, after Rep. Barry Crago, R-Buffalo, asked the bringer of the amendment whether it impeded on First Amendment rights by prohibiting anyone from sending out a ballot request form unless specifically requested by a voter.
"No person, except a county clerk or the secretary of state, or their designees, shall distribute an absentee ballot request form by mail, email or any other means to any qualified elector unless that qualified elector specifically solicits an absentee ballot request form," the final version rejected by the governor stated.
Gov. Gordon has until midnight Saturday night to veto any other bills passed out of the 67th Wyoming Legislature during its general session, which began Jan. 3 and adjourned March 3.
Jasmine Hall is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's state government reporter. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter @jasminerhphotos and on Instagram @jhrose25.