Wyoming legislative committee drafts bill to strip secretary of state for election oversight
By Leo Wolfson, political journalist
A bill will be drafted in the Wyoming Legislature that would strip the new secretary of state of overseeing the state’s elections.
State Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, chairman of the Committee on Corporations, Elections, and Political Subdivisions, proposed Thursday afternoon that a five-member, nonpartisan election commission be created to perform those duties. The committee supported the drafting of the bill by a vote of 7 to 3.
Last week, State Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper, won the Republican nomination for secretary of state. As of press time, Gray faces no opposition in the general election.
Gray did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposed bill.
Zwonitzer made it clear Thursday that this bill is primarily aimed at Gray.
“We have a 2024 election coming up which is going to be very contentious and I fear that the most likely person who will be our Chief Electoral Officer, the Secretary of State, has alleged that there may be nefarious activity in the ballot. box in Wyoming, which I don’t agree exists,” Zwonitzer said during the meeting. “I think our elections are safe, probably more so than any other state in this country.”
One of the main responsibilities of the Secretary of State in Wyoming is to oversee the state’s elections.
Zwonitzer said an election oversight committee would be appointed by the state canvassing board, made up of the governor, secretary of state, state auditor and state treasurer. He said the election commission would serve as a separate operating agency within the state government and allow for an expansion of state election management, creating more oversight power for issues such as finance. campaign and black money.
“I know there are many people who think our elections are not safe. I know most of us think they are,” Zwonitzer said. “If we really want to convince the public that our elections are beyond reproach, I think it would be a good idea to have a separate operating agency overseen by our constitutional officers.”
Gray has expressed doubts about the security of Wyoming’s election throughout his campaign, a point a few members of the corporations committee and some staffers in the secretary of state’s office said they found offensive. He also made statements about changes he would make to Wyoming law that the Secretary of State does not have the legal authority to make and that would have to be passed by the Wyoming Legislative Assembly. Gray later clarified that he would orchestrate many of these changes by lobbying lawmakers.
Zwonitzer, Sens. Cale Case, R-Lander, Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne and Reps. Jim Roscoe, I-Wilson, Marshall Burt, L-Green River, were among the contingency that voted in favour. Nethercott recently lost to Gray in the Republican primaries.
Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, who voted against drafting the bill, expressed concern about its purpose and the backlash it might receive.
“I think for the majority of voters who voted for the gentleman who won the Secretary of State primary…would rightly feel insulted if we tried to take a lot of the blame off before the guy had even had a chance,” he said. .
Scott said the current office structure is working for Wyoming and that the 23 county clerks will preserve the integrity of the state’s elections.
He also expressed concern that passing the legislation would put the state in a situation similar to when it stripped former Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill of most of her duties in 2013. The Assembly Legislature and former Gov. Matt Mead did so because Hill used state and federal funds for programs not authorized by the legislature and did not cooperate with that body when it came to reforms. The actions of the Legislative Assembly were later ruled unconstitutional by the Wyoming Supreme Court.
“The consequences were most unfortunate,” Scott said. “I think we should learn from that.”
Burt disagreed with Scott on this comparison and moved to draft the bill.
“I think the state wouldn’t be sued … if it worked as intended,” Burt said. “I love the watch and we can at least bring in a draft and have a discussion, instead of shutting it down before we can even have a debate.”
Zwonitzer also disagreed with Scott in an interview with Cowboy State Daily on Friday morning and said the changes would be more akin to adjustments made to the Treasurer’s office in recent years, where that elected official is no longer solely responsible for the supervision of the entire state budget. .
Zwonitzer argued that establishing a panel of unelected officials to oversee elections is not a “plug and play” idea, as he said about half of the nation’s states l ‘have. He said the creation of this panel would eliminate the partisan nature of a single elected official responsible for managing state elections.
“That would alleviate some of the concerns of our committee and the Legislative Assembly,” Zwonitzer said. “Elections can’t be political and the election officer on the ballot, it’s hard to see them not being political. It’s probably best to split this between five people as with other government functions. It provides good government.
Zwonitzer said that if the commission is created, the secretary of state would retain his other duties, including overseeing state corporations and business licenses, regulating the stock exchange, serving as a member of the State Lands and Investments Board, State Board of Land Commissioners. , National Building Commission.
He said the contentious race between Gray and Nethercott got him thinking about creating this panel, but said he wasn’t sure if he would have come up with the idea had Nethercott won the primary. He said it was Gray’s rhetoric that he said could put the state in a “precarious position” when it comes to administering elections.
During a forum, Gray also indicated that he would only keep staff from the secretary of state’s office who share his vision.
“We’re worried that the whole office will go out or he’ll delete them all,” Zwonitzer said.
Monique Meese, director of communications and policy for the secretary of state’s office, said she resigned in part because of Gray’s election victory. She told the Cowboy State Daily that she fears many other members of the office will do the same.
Although Karen Wheeler, assistant secretary of state, said in an interview with the Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday that she is not resigning at this time, she said she is unsure of her future after the end of the year when the next Secretary of State begins his term.
The effort to draft this bill is a new development in an ongoing campaign to block Gray from overseeing state elections. Last week, Case and a top lobbyist launched separate searches to find an independent candidate to run against Gray in the general election.
A draft of the bill is scheduled for discussion at the next meeting of the Corporations Committee on October 13-14.