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CHEYENNE – Wyoming lawmakers are exploring the possibility of allowing counties to administer mail-in ballot systems, but one of the legislators in the committee that could move it forward said it’s unlikely it will go anywhere.

For the last several years, county clerks from around Wyoming have been discussing the possibility of elections by mail. Several factors led to the notion, such as aging voting equipment that will be expensive to replace, difficulty finding suitable polling places and a shortage of election judges, said Debra Lee, Laramie County clerk. The expense of it all, she said, is becoming hard for clerks. And with Wyoming in an ongoing fiscal crunch, there’s little money available on the state or local levels to address the problems.

“It’s increasingly difficult,” she said. “Even in Laramie County, where we went to vote centers and considerably reduced the number of polling places and, consequently, the number of election judges, it’s still challenging.”

Clerks have approached the Legislature calling for funding for a study, but so far haven’t been successful.

“That was disconcerting to us election officials,” Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese said.

Freese said the clerks went ahead and hosted meetings around the state where voters were invited to learn about the issues. A survey was then conducted where just more than 1,000 Wyoming voters participated, giving their feedback on what they heard.

When it came to mail-in ballots, 36 percent of respondents statewide said they believed the system would be very reliable, and 25 percent said it would be moderately reliable. Ten percent believed mail-in ballots would be extremely unreliable, and 13 percent said it would be not very reliable. The remaining 16 percent didn’t feel strongly one way or another.

How it might help

Oregon, Washington and Colorado conduct all elections by mail, according to National Conference of State Legislatures. In those states, ballots are mailed to registered voters before Election Day. There is no option for in-person voting precincts. Those states do, however, provide the option to return a ballot in person or vote in person.

Freese said she’s studied how mail-in ballots work in other states. While there are certainly more questions to be answered, Freese said there’s evidence that it increases voter turnout and is appealing to younger voters. That would be meaningful, too, because the youngest eligible voters participate in lower numbers than every other demographic.

“Decades of examining voter turnout data have yielded analysts to one consistent conclusion,” said Jim King, University of Wyoming political science professor. “Younger adults vote less than others. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the baby boomers, generation X or the millennials.”

Just less than 35 percent of eligible voters age 18-24 participated in the 2016 election. In 2014, just 10 percent participated in the mid-term election. That’s compared to 70-79-year-olds, who had the highest participation rate at 81 percent in 2016 and 67 percent in 2014.

Wyoming already allows voting by mail for special district elections, if an election has to be done again and in absentee voting. Since 2012, Wyoming voters have increased voting by mail by 35 percent, according to the County Clerks Association of Wyoming.

It’s on the Legislature

Wyoming will need to implement expensive updates to its voting systems in coming years. If any Wyoming county is found to be out of step with federal requirements, it could lead to the Department of Justice intervening in the state’s elections.

County clerks and former Secretary of State Joe Meyer forecasted the need to plan for replacing aging voting equipment and called for the passage of legislation that would have set up a trust fund to replace voting equipment. That bill, however, was not considered by the Senate in 2005.

No efforts to put a plan in place have been made since. At the May meetings of the Wyoming Legislature’s

Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions in Lander, however, Kai Schon, Wyoming Secretary of State elections director, called on lawmakers to take another look at a bill establishing a trust fund. But it will need to clear the Corporations Committee before it goes to the big show, where it could still ultimately fail.

With the impending cost mounting, mail-in ballots could be a game-changer for the Cowboy State.

It would cost some money to implement a mail-in ballot system. But once it’s in place, Lee said the savings would be substantial. Even if a county like Laramie County only used the option in limited circumstances, she said it would be nice to know it’s possible.

“I would say there’s no doubt we would (save money on elections),” Lee said. “I would like to see mail ballots for these special elections, like bond elections and those things that happen not in a major election year. It’s very costly for us to run an election.”

Wyoming’s fiscally conservative lawmakers, however, have been skeptical about the notion. Republicans in states across the nation have come out against mail-in ballots. Montana’s GOP chairman, for example, said in 2017 that voting by mail hurts Republicans, according to the Billings Gazette.

So it came as a surprise to Freese when Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, asked the county clerks to draft a bill for the Corporations Committee to consider when it meets later this year.

“The Republican Party came out with a resolution against mail ballots, but I think it’s shortsighted and they didn’t know the whole story,” Lindholm said. “I think someone was signing a song and dance that is not the truth. I personally am in favor of it.”

Freese said it’s her understanding that most of the hesitation around voting-by-mail systems come down to concerns of potential fraud. But she said education about how the system could actually work might help convince skeptics it’s not fraught with dangers.

“I don’t want to downplay those (concerns) at all, so I would like to address those issues more than anything,” she said.

Clerks aren’t endorsing mail ballots, Freese said. But she and her colleagues want to make sure clerks have options in the deck to ensure elections are viable, secure and accessible for foreseeable future.

“Mail balloting may not be a good choice for Wyoming,” Freese said. “But it’s important to do the research and answer those questions before it’s just thrown out as an option because people think it’s not a good idea.”

A real chance?

Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, is a member of the Plan for Aging Voting Equipment, or PAVE, task force. She said it appears the interest is there among Wyoming voters for mail ballots, but concerns persist.

“It presents a number of challenges concerning reliability and accuracy of mail-in ballots,” Nethercott said. “But I do think it’s something the state should consider as an option to increase voting turnout and be responsive for what people want as a method to vote.”

House Corporations Committee Chairman Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, said he’s not opposed to or in favor of voting by mail at this point. From where he sits, however, it doesn’t appear the committee as a whole would be supportive of a bill that would give counties the option. Zwonitzer said he thinks there would also be pushback from Wyoming citizens.

“I think most legislators and most of the constituents in Wyoming still like going to the voting booth on voting day as part of the process we’ve had for 100 years,” he said. “We all know it saves money, but I think the backlash from the constituency would be harsh.”

Secretary of State Ed Buchanan said he’s open to discussing mail-in ballots as a method for conducting elections, but the focus now is on replacing aging voting equipment. Buchanan’s office, he said, would like to see greater voter interest in absentee voting before considering a legislative change mandating all voters to vote by mail (the draft legislation being considered now would likely not include a statewide mandate).

“Depending on the goal of a mail-in ballot proposal, there are other policy steps that could be considered,” Buchanan wrote in an email, “such as an expansion of access to absentee ballots or allowing voters to choose a permanent absentee status, which essentially establishes an all-mail ballot election method for those voters, while still maintaining a polling place or voter center model.”

The Corporations Committee is scheduled to meet in September in a yet-to-be determined location where it will likely consider a draft bill that would allow for mail-in ballots in Wyoming elections.

Joel Funk is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at jfunk@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @jmacfunk.

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