Changes to Wyoming’s primary election system unlikely before 2024 – KPVI News 6

SHERIDAN — Changes to Wyoming’s primary elections appear unlikely to come until at least 2024, despite a big push for them in time for next year’s political contests.

The Legislature’s Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee met Thursday to discuss multiple possible changes to Wyoming’s election structure including runoffs, jungle primaries and ranked-choice voting.

The importance of the topic was clear in the Sheridan College meeting room, which was packed to the point that dozens more chairs were brought in. Even then, people were still standing at the back of the room. Secretary of State Ed Buchanan and Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne were both present, in addition to a number of other state Democrat and Republican officials

Wyoming Republican officials have been pushing for election reform by next year’s primary, which is expected to feature Rep. Liz Cheney and Gov. Mark Gordon attempting to defend their seats from GOP challengers. The far right has pushed a runoff bill in particular as a way to avoid a primary in which multiple challengers split the vote and the incumbent wins with less than a majority.

Cheney is facing several Republican challengers after voting to impeach then-President Donald Trump. Gordon, meanwhile, won the primary in 2018 with less than a majority after multiple far right candidates split the vote.

Still, some in the GOP appeared Thursday to accept that changes can’t be implemented until at least 2024. County clerks, several of which attended the meeting, have continually stressed that it would not be technically feasible to change Wyoming’s primary system by next year.

Dave Holland, vice chairman of the Wyoming GOP, conceded when testifying before the committee that getting the changes in place by 2022 was not doable.

“It’s my understanding that the Republican Party was the real driver pushing the Legislature to have this as our primary topic, that we had to change our system by 2022,” said Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, co-chairman of the committee. “Is 2024 now OK?”

But not all Republicans were buying that argument.

“If one has to wait, it has to wait, but we’re not settling for that yet,” Eathorne told the Star-Tribune. “There’s not consensus on that.”

When it comes to reforming primaries, the committee was looking at three possible options: ranked-choice, jungle primaries or runoffs.

At a previous meeting, the committee voted to draft two bills: one on ranked-choice voting and one on a jungle primary. In a ranked-choice system, voters rank their candidates in order of preference. In jungle primaries, the top two candidates move on the general election, regardless of their party.

The ranked-choice bill failed Thursday in an 8-4 vote and the jungle primary bill was tabled, but committee support for a jungle primary did not appear to be robust.

Committee-sponsored bills historically have a better chance of success when the full Legislature gathers. Still, an individual lawmaker could bring an election reform bill to the session.

Case, the most vocal advocate for ranked-choice voting, believes that it’s superior to a jungle primary or a runoff.

“This is the wave of the future, and this is a good one,” he said.

The third option came from Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, who is not a member of the committee. He brought a bill — and a necessary constitutional amendment to go along with it — that would implement a runoff election for the 2024 election, in the hopes of getting the committee to sponsor it. The committee voted to discuss the bill and the amendment at its next meeting, which will occur before the full session.

Under Hulett’s bill, the primary would be in May and the runoff election would occur in August if no candidate received more than 50% of the votes. If a runoff is triggered, voters will not be able to switch parties between the two elections.

The runoff bill would apply to statewide elected officials, state legislators and any federal races.

For incumbent legislators, the change would force them to campaign during the legislative session, because not only would the primary date pushed up, but the filing deadline too.

A runoff comes with a price. It would cost about $260,000 between the extra administrative costs and additional absentee ballots. A second election cycle in August would cost roughly $1.1 million statewide, county clerks have previously testified.

If elections continue the way they have in recent years, runoffs would be common — there would have been runoffs in five out of the last six election cycles, in addition to a number of runoffs in state legislative races.

Debate over runoff legislation highlighted some of the fissures between the Wyoming Republican Party and lawmakers.

Of the numerous people who spoke on the bill, Eathorne was the most aggressive, saying that the state GOP would be watching which lawmakers were in favor or opposed to the legislation.

That didn’t sit right with some current and former lawmakers.

“Frankly, I’m very concerned when the leader of the Republican party threatens legislators,” said Bruce Burns, a former state senator.

In response, Eathorne returned to the microphone and clarified that he was not threatening anyone, but rather relaying the preferences of the state GOP.

“Why doesn’t the state Republican Party have the philosophy that, ‘We work with the Legislature and listen to the people that you elect and listen to what the Legislature is telling us’ — the overwhelmingly most Republican legislature in the country?” Zwnoitzer said in response.

In the end, it is the residents of Wyoming who vote in elections and whose interests will be represented by candidates, and there were doubts Thursday about how invested the public really was in primary election reform.

One of the main points that runoff advocates emphasized was the popularity of the measure with their constituents. But one lawmaker pushed back on that notion.

Citizens often attend meetings to comment on topics, but no one from the general public advocated for runoffs at the meeting Thursday, Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, pointed out.

“It is telling to me that they’re not here, the [Republican] Party is here,” she said.

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