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Laramie County residents cast their vote Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Event Center polling location. Due to COVID-19 concerns, Laramie County only opened seven polling locations across the county, including in Cheyenne and Pine Bluffs. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – Some Wyoming lawmakers are pushing for changes to the state’s primary election process, but it's unclear exactly what the changes would be or if they could go into effect before the 2022 election, when Congresswoman Liz Cheney will face off against a crowded field.

During a meeting Monday of the Wyoming Legislature's Joint Corporations Interim Committee, Election Division Director Kai Schon said the Secretary of State's office recommends the Legislature take up the issue during the 2022 session to implement the changes for the 2024 election, due to a need for a constitutional amendment. But during discussions, he added that a ranked choice voting process could possibly be put into place quickly, before the 2022 primary.

The committee will continue discussing the possibility of both an open primary and ranked choice voting going forward, continuing the conversation about changes to the primary process from a bill that died in March that would've created an election runoff system.

Following the last session, when that bill was introduced, Schon said his office spent some significant time “working with the county clerks and identifying every statute that would have to be changed, as well as entertaining every time frame necessary to fulfill those statutory requirements.”

“It was from those two points that our office developed an actual election timeline with the clerks that works and allows Wyoming to continue to conduct elections with integrity, under the standard election model that we currently use,” he continued.

The committee voted 9-5 Monday to direct the Legislative Service Office to draft a bill for discussion at its next meeting about ranked choice voting, which eliminates the need for a runoff election and doesn’t need a constitutional amendment before 2024. A motion directing LSO to draft a bill for an open primary, where all the candidates are grouped together and the top two move on to a runoff, initially failed with a 7-7 vote, but it was later revived and approved, so the LSO will draft bills for both possibilities.

According to LSO research analyst Danielle Creech, the ranked choice voting process ensures that the winner receives more than 50% of the vote. As she explained, the first tallies are based on the voters’ choices on their ballots. If no single candidate has the majority of votes in the first round, the candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated from the running.

When a voter’s top candidate is eliminated, their vote then goes to their second choice on the ballot in the second round of counting. That process of elimination continues until one candidate receives the majority and wins. The process is similar to that of a runoff election, but Creech said the benefit is that voters only have to head to the polls once, where a runoff requires two ballots to be cast.

As for the open primary, the top two candidates in the race would move forward, meaning two popular republicans could face off against each other in the general election.

Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, a strong proponent of changing the primary, said Monday, “The concern by the constituents, the voters that I represent, is that we are moving into a situation ... where we've had people put in positions who have gotten less than half of the popular vote.”

Rep. Patrick Sweeney, R-Casper, on the other hand, said he hasn’t heard from any constituents on the matter and that he thought the current system worked just fine.

“Just because one of the parties in our state wants all of this, I don't believe the majority of our citizens do,” Sweeney said.

Crook County Clerk Linda Fritz also made it clear that this conversation should not deal with election integrity, and that to suggest otherwise is “frustrating and insulting” to county clerks across the state, who care deeply about holding fair elections.

“We have worked our tails off to make sure that you have good elections, and we have not heard one single, solitary, substantiated complaint that we have done something wrong,” Fritz said. “So, until we hear that, I think the legislative body really needs to consider what laws you pass to correct something that isn't wrong.”

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.

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