CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming Senate narrowly defeated Senate File 145 on a third reading vote of 14-15 (with one senator excused) on Wednesday. The legislation would have created primary runoff elections in Wyoming if no candidate were to receive over 50% of the vote.
With the proposal back backed by Donald Trump Jr. as he looks to support challenges to Wyoming’s U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s re-election efforts in 2022, the legislation caught the attention of The New York Times, which in turn caught the attention of Sen. Ed Cooper (Big Horn, Fremont, Hot Springs, Park, Washakie County).
Cooper said he gleaned from the Times article a suggestion that Senate File 145 was to allow for manipulation of Wyoming’s elections: “That’s how the rest of the country is seeing what is happening here.”
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While Cooper said he takes the views he perceived in the article with a grain of salt, he said he thinks it is important the the Senate act with integrity when considering legislation.
“When we bring a bill forward that is of questionable intent, we jeopardize everything that this chamber is built on,” he said.
Cooper said that he thinks the appropriate thing for the Senate to do it to make the proposal for runoff primaries into an interim topic rather than rushing it through during the 2021 General Session.
“This is our election system,” Cooper said. “It is too important to be taken lightly.”
While Cooper raised some concern about what the motivation behind Senate File 145 being drafted may have been, Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss (Albany) said he didn’t think it was a good idea for the Senate to debate intentions and motivations lurking behind a proposal.
“I discourage that,” Rothfuss said, adding that he thinks that kind of argument alters the way the body conducts debate.
He said that a proposed piece of legislation at the end of the day comes down to what it says regardless of “the history of how it got in front of us.
“It is plain writing on a page,” he said. “It is a policy proposal.”
Rothfuss said he thinks runoffs for primaries are one of a number of different ways the election system could be improved. Others which have come up during the Senate’s debate of the bill include ranked choice voting.
Rothfuss said he was against passing Senate File 145 as he would also like to see further study during the interim about ways which could improve Wyoming’s elections.
“I feel that we have an election system that can be significantly improved,” he said.
Cooper said he is also “100% for election reform if it is needed” but said he thinks “maybe this is being rushed through.”
Rep. Dave Kinskey (Sheridan, Johnson) said that his concern about creating primary runoff elections is that it could have the unintended consequence of benefiting the minority party candidates during the general election.
Kinskey said that a primary system with runoff elections could lead to increased costs for candidates which could put them in a weaker position in the general election.
Rep. Drew Perkins (Natrona) said that he spoke with some people in Natrona recently who he said aren’t very politically active. When he asked what they thought about runoff elections, Perkins said “they didn’t get it at all.” He said they weren’t too keen on the idea of being asked to spend the time to participate in an additional election.
Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill (Crook, Campbell, Weston) said he was concerned that creating runoff elections would invite federal election officials to become involved in Wyoming’s election process.
“If that’s the case, I think it is pretty scary,” he said.
While the bill was amended on third reading to remove any appropriation and was amended to move the effective date back to 2023, Rep. Bill Landen (Natrona) said that the Senate should understand that runoff elections will come with a cost and would take more work than some may realize. He said he wasn’t necessarily for or against the proposal: “I just wanted to remind the body that there is still quite a bit of work to be done here.”
Landen suggested the concept be studied more fully during the interim.
Cooper said that he gets the mechanics of how the bill would implement runoff elections but that “I’ve not really heard a good explanation of why we are doing this.
“I’ve been voting in Wyoming elections since before a lot of you were born,” he said. “I’d really like an explanation of why this is necessary.”
Sen. Bo Biteman (Sheridan), one of the sponsors of the bill, said one reasone he supports Senate File 145 is because Wyoming has seen some primary election races in recent years in which the winning candidate received less than 50% of the vote, pointing to the governor’s race in 2018 and the U.S. House seat race in 2016 as examples.
He said that a candidate receiving less than 50% of the vote during a primary “is not exactly what you would call a mandate.”
Biteman said that he thinks South Dakota has been able to successfully hold runoff primary elections without federal interference and that Wyoming could also make it work.
He urged the Senate to pass Senate File 145 because killing it would force the process to work toward runoff elections to start over again from scratch.
The Senate’s 14-15 vote defeating Senate File 145 was as follows:
- Ayes: BITEMAN, BOUCHARD, CASE, DOCKSTADER, DRISKILL, ELLIS, FRENCH, FURPHY, HICKS, HUTCHINGS, JAMES, MCKEOWN, SALAZAR, STEINMETZ
- Nays: ANDERSON, BALDWIN, COOPER, GIERAU, KINSKEY, KOLB, KOST, LANDEN, NETHERCOTT, PAPPAS, PERKINS, ROTHFUSS, SCHULER, SCOTT, WASSERBURGER
- Excused: BONER