Wyoming Senate narrowly defeats election runoff bill

Mar. 24—CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Senate narrowly defeated a bill Wednesday that would have required a runoff election following Wyoming's primary elections if the leading candidate failed to secure an initial majority of the votes.

Senate File 145, which the body rejected by a 15-14 vote, with one senator excused, would have required a runoff between the two leading candidates following a primary election for any of the five statewide elected officials, as well as in races for the Wyoming Legislature and federal offices. A candidate would have to win more than 50% of the vote in the primary to avoid a runoff election.

During floor debate Wednesday, the bill's sponsor, Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, ran through a handful of Republican primary elections over the last decade in which the winning candidate prevailed with less than 50% of the vote.

Among those he mentioned were the 2018 Republican primary for governor, in which now-Gov. Mark Gordon won with about 33% of the vote split between six candidates. He also mentioned the 2016 Republican primary for the state's sole U.S. House seat, which U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., won with about 40% of the vote in a race with nine GOP candidates.

"That's not exactly what you would call a mandate," Biteman said on the Senate floor Wednesday. "There's a lot of people out there that don't think that that's right. They want to send our nominee off to the general election with a mandate of the majority of the party's support."

During a prior committee meeting, the bill had been amended to take effect in 2023 instead of 2022, meaning it wouldn't take effect in time for the upcoming primary races next year. Biteman said the delay would allow plenty of time for the Secretary of State's office and county clerks to ensure the quick turnaround from a June primary to a potential August runoff would go smoothly.

However, the bill faced many skeptics in the Senate, with several lawmakers arguing the issue should be taken up as an interim topic to be properly vetted. Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, noted the proposal could result in the winner of a runoff race being "broke and exhausted" by the time they made it to the general election.

"If you take the majority party in Wyoming, and now you're going to have two contentious primaries while the minority party fields a candidate that floats right through, the odds are that you may have, as an unintended consequence of a dual primary system, that it's the minority party more often prevailing than would be the case under the current system," Kinskey said.

Sen. Drew Perkins, R-Casper, said he checked in with some of his constituents who are not very politically engaged, and they met him with quizzical looks in response to the idea.

"Quite frankly, they were just appalled that we would have another election," Perkins said. "They were appalled that they would be subjected to still another election."

Earlier this month, the bill had drawn some national attention typically unseen in the Wyoming Legislature when Donald Trump Jr., the former president's son, tweeted twice in support of the proposal as a way to oust Cheney, who he has frequently criticized for her policies and her impeachment vote of then-President Trump earlier this year.

"Any Republican in Wyoming who does Liz Cheney's bidding and opposes SF 145 is turning their back on my father and the entire America First movement," his March 9 tweet stated. "Support SF 145 and let's send Lincoln Project Liz into retirement in 2022!"

The tweet from Trump Jr. drew a write-up of the bill in a New York Times article, in which Biteman said the proposal had "nothing to do personally with Liz Cheney and the Trump supporters." Sen. Ed Cooper, R-Ten Sleep, alluded to the article during floor debate Wednesday, stating his concern over "how some of the rest of the world is seeing what we're doing here."

"I've not really heard a great reason for changing 130 years of history yet," Cooper said of the proposal. "I think there may be merit to it, but there may not be. If there's a valid reason for election reform, then let's do the right thing. Let's do an interim study."

The proposal then failed on its final reading by a 15-14 vote, with Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, excused. Immediately after that, Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, who voted against the bill, made a motion for the Senate to reconsider SF 145, but the motion was defeated by a 26-3 vote.

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle's state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.