Legislative committee considers election format changes

Aug. 26—CHEYENNE — Lawmakers agreed Thursday to draft legislation that, if approved by the full Legislature next year, would distinctly change the format of elections across the state in 2024.

The approval came after more than two hours of testimony and discussion in the Wyoming Legislature's Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. Members carefully weighed the benefits and shortcomings of instant runoff elections, ranked-choice voting and open primaries.

Legislative staff has been directed to draft two bills for the Corporations Committee to consider at its upcoming meeting in October. It took a second vote for both motions to pass, but either would closely align with election formats used by fellow "red" states.

"I'm just happy Alaska and Utah are our models, and not Massachusetts or New York," said Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, chairman of the committee, following the votes.

Currently, the state utilizes a closed primary and plurality voting system. Only voters registered with the Republican or Democratic Party can vote in their party's primary, and the party affiliation is included in voter registration so there is an official record. Voters are allowed to switch their party affiliation at any time.

The plurality system refers to how a candidate is elected. The contender who receives the highest number of votes is elected, and it is not required that they receive more than 50% of the total votes cast.

This is a significant difference from the first proposed election format bill the Legislative Service Office is responsible for drafting. It will take after the initiative Alaskan voters approved in the 2020 general election to establish a nonpartisan primary and ranked-choice voting system.

However, the recommendation by Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, was for an open primary that would have the top four choices move forward to a ranked-choice voting system in the general election.

His second motion, which also was passed, was to keep a closed primary, but to implement a ranked-choice voting system similar to what is being tested by Utah at the municipal level. Both proposals will be considered in October.

Open primary, ranked-choice

FairVote, a nonpartisan election reform organization, defines an open primary as an election where "voters of any affiliation may vote in the primary of any party. They cannot vote in more than one party's primary, although that prohibition can be difficult to enforce in the event a party has a primary runoff. In many open primaries, voters do not indicate partisan affiliation when they register to vote."

Along with a ranked-choice voting system, the Wyoming election format would transform dramatically. Voters would rank candidates by preference on their ballots, and if a candidate wins more than half of first-preference votes, they are declared the winner. If no candidate wins based on first-preference, Ballotpedia explains that the candidate with the least first-preference votes are eliminated.

"All first-preference votes for the failed candidate are eliminated, lifting the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots," according to the digital encyclopedia on American politics and elections. "A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won an outright majority of the adjusted voters. The process is repeated until a candidate wins a majority of votes cast."

Case suggested the system after hearing testimony from stakeholders on its positive impacts. Many argued it would address concerns of crossover voting and the plurality system, as well as encourage candidates to communicate to a greater number of voters, rather than to the extremes of either party.

"With 94% of people voting on the same ballot last Tuesday, we essentially had an open primary here in Wyoming. Open primaries almost eliminate the need for crossover voting, though. There's no need to switch parties when there's no parties involved," said Jennifer Lowe, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center. "The other wonderful thing about open primaries is it allows taxpayers — those who are funding these elections — to fully participate."

The majority of votes Aug. 16 were in the Republican primary, which pitted U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., against challenger Harriet Hageman. Although many Democrats crossed over to vote for Cheney, Hageman easily ousted the incumbent and advanced to the Nov. 8 general election.

Despite significant support for the system voiced in testimony, there were those who criticized its consideration.

Wyoming GOP National Committeeman Corey Steinmetz said the political philosophy between the parties was very evident, and taking away a partisan primary would be a challenge. He said many voters trust the "R" behind a Republican candidate's name when they're running, and it assures that the contender represents their shared values and beliefs.

"What we've heard from Republicans all across the state is that we want to keep our primary," he told lawmakers. "We want Republicans voting for Republican nominees, they want Democrats voting for Democratic nominees, and we would have competitive elections if the Democrats would have people run."

Steinmetz said changing the voting system has been an ongoing discussion for years, but he didn't know if "we need to reinvent the wheel." He was concerned any major changes to the election statutes would also impact political organization makeup and elections for precinct committee persons.

"That's a very dangerous territory," he said.

Jacqueline McMann was a supporter of an open primary and ranked-choice voting, and argued against Steinmetz's theory about Wyoming voters. She said the current system deters healthy participation, and the Republican Party has developed a monopoly on voting.

"We use a shorthand, the 'R' in front of a person's name and the 'D' in front of a person's name. The 'L' for libertarian. It's a shorthand for trust," she said. "And I think we have broken down that trust by our divisiveness, and people are no longer engaged."

Jasmine Hall is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's state government reporter. She can be reached by email at jhall@wyomingnews.com or by phone at 307-633-3167. Follow her on Twitter @jasminerhphotos and on Instagram @jhrose25.