CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming Senate are in the process of considering legislation which would create primary runoff elections in Wyoming.
The runoff elections proposed under Senate File 145 would not be implemented in Wyoming in time for that election if the legislation becomes law as amended during the Senate’s Friday, March 19 floor session.
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The Senate adopted an amendment to push the effective date of the proposed legislation back from July 1, 2022 to Jan. 1 2023.
Runoff elections as proposed in the legislation would be held if no candidates in a primary election for a statewide or federal office receive at least 50% of the vote.
Some senators suggested that there are other ways to achieve a similar outcome as what runoff elections allow — ranked choice voting.
Ranked choice voting was implemented by the Wyoming Democratic Party for the first time during their 2020 primary/caucus process. Ranked choice voting may be a way to eliminate voters’ concerns that they are “wasting” their vote by casting a ballot in support of a less viable candidate.
“A ranked-choice voting system (RCV) is an electoral system in which voters rank candidates by preference on their ballots,” Ballotpedia explains. “If a candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated.”
Sen. Cale Case (Fremont County) said he thinks ranked choice voting may offer a similar benefit to what runoff elections would allow and that county clerks have suggested this could be done more cost-effectively than implementing runoff elections.
“They could do that with the existing equipment now,” Case said of ranked choice voting.
The Senate adopted two amendments to Senate File 145 on Friday related to the possible cost of holding runoff elections. In an initial amendment recommended by the Senate Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee, they added an appropriation of $1.5 million.
However, they then adopted an amendment proposed by the Senate Appropriations Committee to slash that appropriation in half to $750,000.
Senate Vice President Larry Hicks (Albany, Carbon, Sweetwater) said that the $1.5 million appropriation grew out of estimates from county clerks and the secretary of state’s office as to what it may cost them to implement primary runoff elections.
He explained that the Senate Appropriations Committee looked to cut this in half since the Senate was looking to push the effective date of the proposed legislation back a year and that the legislature could appropriate additional funding as better estimates become available in the interim.
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Drew Perkins (Natrona) said that another reason the committee recommended a $750,000 appropriation was because the $1.5 million estimated cost was not based on a detailed explanation of what those costs would be.
“My philosophy on appropriations is it ought to be hard,” he said. “There is more that can be done to understand what is in that number.”
“This is taxpayer money and we need to be careful with it.”
Perkins said that with the Senate having adopted an amendment to push back the effective date, they could also consider a future amendment to cut the appropriation down to zero.
Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss (Albany County) said he was against the $750,000 appropriation and would rather see the Senate either appropriate the full $1.5 million or amend the legislation to appropriate zero dollars for now.
“If I do choose to vote for the bill, it does seem like we should be appropriately funding it,” he said.
Case said that the $1.5 million estimate might actually be too low of a figure: “It is going to take some money.” That’s one reason Case expressed some interest in looking more into ranked choice voting.
The Senate also discussed an amendment to the proposed legislation that would have made it so that primaries for state legislative office seats would not be included in the runoff provisions, but that runoffs would apply only to primary elections for governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, state auditor, state superintendent of public instruction and any federal office.
Hicks said that removing state legislature races from the runoff rules would reduce the number of occasions where a runoff would potentially occur which would help simplify the task of getting runoff elections in place.
Some senators expressed opposition to the proposal: “I’d like to hear any other ideas that would make my re-election easier too,” Sen. Dave Kinskey (Sheridn, Johnson) joked.
He said that the amendment could be seen as the legislature making “the rules that most advantage ourselves.”
“If we are going to do this, we need to do this all the way,” Kinskey said.
Sen. Tim Salazar (Fremont), a co-sponsor of the bill, said he supported the amendment “not because I’m afraid to be in a runoff.” He said that he has heard from constituents that they are primarily interested in having runoff elections to deal with the other races specified in the bill.
Sen. Charles Scott (Natrona) said he was in favor of the amendment because he thinks runoffs would be a “very rare thing with a legislative race.”
Sen. Bill Landen (Natrona), on the other hand, said that runoff elections would happen in legislative races more often than Scott suggested.
“I believe it actually kicks in quite often,” he said. “If we are going to do this, I think it needs to include us.”
Sen. John Kolb (Sweetwater) asked whether there had been any discussion of including county-level elections in the legislation: “If we’re going to do this, we need to have everybody,” he said.
The amendment to exclude legislative races from the runoff election process failed.
Scott argued that the Senate should defeat the overall legislation for now because “I don’t believe this is quite ready for prime time.”
He said that Wyoming is “becoming clearly a one-party state” and he does think thought needs to go into how the state holds primary elections.
“You can get a very small minority actually controlling that election,” Scott said.
But he said the proposal under Senate File 145 to implement runoff elections has some problems as it would push the primary elections back to the first Monday in May, thus creating a “long gap between the primary and the general” and a “much longer campaign period.”
Scott said he was also interested in learning more about other alternatives such as ranked choice voting. He said that if the legislature wants to move forward with runoff elections, “maybe we ought to try a runoff election just for the governor’s office and see if that would work.”
Another reason the Senate pushed back the effective date of the legislation is because county clerks and the secretary of state’s office will be dealing with redistricting this year based on data from the 2020 United State Census. The Census Bureau announced in February that they will have all data for redistricting to states by Sept. 30, 2021.
Sen. Bo Biteman (Sheridan), a sponsor of the bill, said he was against pushing back the effective date of the bill and that he thinks the runoffs could be implemented in 2022 so long as primaries for state legislative office are not included in the legislation.
Senate Majority Floor Leader and Senate Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee Chair Ogden Driskill said that the committee had heard testimony that with the bill as originally drafted, the state was likely to run into significant problems.
“Wt this point in time, we’re very likely to run afoul of federal election law unless there is some fairly substantial changes coming forward to the bill,” he said.
Scott said that county clerks had testified that they “simply could not run the election” as early as proposed in the initial bill as they deal with redistricting.
Sen. Brian Boner (Converse, Platte) said that if the legislature wants to enact runoff elections, they shouldn’t rush “We can take our time and do it right and make that it works for all elections.”
Sen. James Anderson (Natrona) said he thinks the legislation should be defeated for now and made into an interim topic for further study.
The Senate narrowly passed Senate File 145 on a vote of 14-13 on first reading Friday. They’ll be able to further amend the bill on second and/or third reading.