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House kills bill extending count of absentee ballots

The Wyoming House on Monday killed a bill that would have extended the period for counting absentee ballots.

House Corporations Committee Chairman Dan Zwonitzer (R, HD-43, Cheyenne) sponsored HB68 that would have required county clerks to count absentee ballots received by the clerk after polls closed. Under existing law, clerks count only ballots delivered to them before polls close.

Zwonitzer said the measure would have required the clerks to count absentee ballots postmarked the day before an election, provided they were received before a county’s canvassing board met to certify election results the following Friday.

County clerks had expressed their dissatisfaction with the bill in a committee hearing last week. Their opposition came through during floor debate Monday. Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R, HD-54, Lander), said his clerk had lobbied him to vote against the bill. When she calls, he listens, he said. Other representatives said they likewise had been called by their county clerks.

Rep. Furphy (R, HD-14, Laramie), said the clerks were concerned the bill reduced voter responsibility. They’re also afraid it would extend the vote counting period and thus narrow the period in which a recount could be performed, he said.

“They’re asking us not to pass this bill,” he said.   

Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R, HD-1, Sundance) testified in favor of the bill. Both he and Furphy had listened to the clerks’ testimony in committee. “I think this has a lot more to do with the fact that it will increase workload — as it should,” Lindholm said. “More votes are being counted.”

The bill failed, 13 to 47.

The measure was spurred in part by a close GOP Senate primary in August. Zwonitzer has said that in Laramie County, more than 80 absentee ballots mailed on or before primary election day were not counted because they were received after the polls closed Aug. 19.

In that primary, Zwonitzer’s father, David Zwonitzer, lost a three-way Senate race to be the GOP nominee. Anthony Bouchard (R, SD-6, Cheyenne) won by four votes and is now in the Senate.

Rep. Daniel Zwonitzer testifies before the House Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee, of which he is the chairman, on Jan. 26. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Rep. Daniel Zwonitzer testifies before the House Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee, of which he is the chairman, on Jan. 26. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

A second bill aimed at making absentee balloting easier will be up for third and final reading in the House today. The measure, HB46, will enable voters to vote absentee permanently.

The bills were among several dealing with voting and elections considered by the House Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Committee on Thursday.

The committee killed a bill that would have required voters to produce a photo ID at the polls.

Another bill, which will restrict Wyoming voters from switching parties fewer than 30 days before primary elections, was postponed for hearing by the committee until today.

Voters now can switch parties at the polls on primary election day. The bill to change that, HB104, could prove contentious.

“This is a very good bill and it’s going to keep Republicans from switching to Democrats and Democrats from switching to Republicans,” bill sponsor Rep. Jim Blackburn (R, HD-45, Cheyenne) said after the Jan. 26 hearing.

Phoebe Stoner, director of the Equality State Policy Center, disagreed. “Primary election turnout is low as it is, and this will only make it harder to participate,” she said in an interview. “It is a fundamental right to register with the party of your choice and the government should not interfere.”

On Thursday, the committee also passed a bill that raises the monetary deposit political candidates must make when they ask for a recount after an election. Currently, candidates must pay a deposit of $100. The bill would base the deposit amount on the percentage of difference in the original vote count. If the difference in votes is more than 1 percent but less than 5 percent the deposit would be $500, going up to a $3,000 deposit if the difference in votes was over 10 percent.  

The committee also voted down a bill that would require apartment numbers to be included on voter address forms.

Packed committee rooms

On Thursday, a day when the Trump administration continued to press its false claims that massive voter fraud occurred across the nation in November, the House Corporations Committee met in a packed conference room at the Jonah Center, Wyoming’s temporary capitol. A number of county clerks from various parts of the state were in the audience.

Matt Micheli, chairman of the state Republican party, was among the standing-room only crowd. In a later interview, he said he was watching different bills and was interested in Blackburn’s bill about switching party affiliations on primary election day.

“The primary process is where the Republican party, the Democratic party, the Libertarian party, whatever parties we have, choose a person that represents that party,” he said. “It makes sense to me that members of the party are the ones who choose their representatives.”

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The permanent absentee voting bill passed the committee after favorable testimony by the county clerks. The bill would make enrollment as an absentee voter permanent, unless the voter asks to be removed. It would also allow an absentee ballot to be requested electronically. Clerks supported the bill because it would save them both time and money, they testified.

The only no vote on the committee came from Rep. Roy Edwards (R, HD-53, Gillette), who did not speak during committee discussion. When the bill came up on the House floor on General File on Friday, he said he was concerned about potential voter fraud. He cited an incident reported by Fox News during the election, where 80 ballots were mistakenly delivered to a single California address.

Zwonitzer’s bill on extending the time to count absentee ballots ran into stiff resistance from the county clerks.

Several clerks testified that the bill could delay the results of elections and would place too much onus on the state while minimizing voter responsibility.

“Our offices are all about deadlines,” Teton County Clerk Sherry Daigle said. “If we don’t keep deadlines, we don’t get our work done.”

“I think voting is a great right,” Crook County Clerk Linda Fritz said. “If they want their vote to be counted, they need to be sure that it gets there in a timely manner.”

Phoebe Stoner, director of the Equality State Policy Center, testified against the photo ID bill and in favor of easing the process for absentee voters. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Phoebe Stoner, director of the Equality State Policy Center, testifies against the photo ID bill and in favor of easing the process for absentee voters. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

One clerk compared meeting the deadlines on absentee ballots to those advertised on utility bills and credit card bills. “If we can ensure that our credit card payments get there on time, why can’t we ensure our ballots get there on time?” she asked.

Stoner testified in favor of the bill. “We believe that what should drive the results of the election is the most accurate vote count, and not necessarily deadlines,” she said. “For a lot of people, voting isn’t easy and it’s easy to forget and it’s a constant struggle to get people to vote.”

Stoner said later that she has spent two election cycles working in Wyoming politics, and she can remember five elections that were determined by just a few votes. The mayoral race in Jackson Hole has come down to 40 votes in the last two elections, she said.

The bill passed the committee 5 to 4 before dying in the House on Monday.

Photo IDs

The most contentious of the day’s bills was HB167, brought by Rep. Lars Lone. His bill would have required voters to produce a photo ID at their polling place.

The reason for the bill? Lone testified before the committee that his wife, a naturalized citizen from the Philippines, was asked for a photo ID, while he was not. Lone also testified that he was given a ballot for the wrong district because he was not ID’d. He decided to try to pass a law that would make the process uniform, he said.

He also told the committee that a constituent had asked him to bring the bill.

In an interview, Lone said voter fraud was not his main concern, which he repeated in testimony before the committee. He just wanted to make sure the process was uniform, he said, not restrict anyone from voting. For that reason he did not specify in the bill what would constitute a “valid photo ID,” open.  

larslone

Rep. Lars Lone presents a bill he sponsored that attempted to require voters to show a photo ID at the polling booth. The effort failed. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

“I was not bringing this bill because of voter fraud,” he testified.

Sabrina King, director of the Wyoming ACLU, said that this legislation could harm elderly voters and that her organization generally opposes voter ID laws. Voter groups estimate anywhere between 4 and 10 percent of voters around the country don’t have a photo ID, she said. When it comes to this state, she said, “you’re talking about automatically disenfranchising 11,000 registered voters in Wyoming for literally no reason.”

Similar laws passed in other states have ended up in the courts, where they’ve been found to disproportionately affect minority and low-income voters.

Edwards spoke in favor of the bill before the committee voted. “A lot of the poll workers don’t know these people as they used to,” he said, and a photo ID would help avoid mistakes. The bill failed with three votes in favor of it.

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Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at [email protected]

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One Response to House kills bill extending count of absentee ballots

  1. Rob Davidson January 31, 2017 at 4:26 pm #

    Working as an election judge in 2016, the biggest number of change in registrations I saw were Republicans were returning from their unaffiliated status as independents. If the Wyoming GOP is losing voters, they aren’t going Democrat. If the GOP wins against same day registration, they will lose voters and we will lose further in participation of first time or lapsed voters.

    Sheridan, Wyoming

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