By Tom Coulter, Wyoming Tribune Eagle via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — As the nationwide death toll for COVID-19 patients continues to rise, many states have quickly responded by adjusting their primary elections — and Wyoming could soon join them.
Both the Democratic and Republican parties in Wyoming have already made some changes.
Last month, the Wyoming Democratic Party canceled the in-person portion of its presidential caucus, and results are expected to be announced around April 18. Meanwhile, the Wyoming Republican Party has a contingency plan to meet virtually for its state convention in early May. In Wyoming, the two parties are in charge of running the caucuses for presidential races.
Meanwhile, the Secretary of State’s office is responsible for all other elections in the state, and it has the ultimate authority to change the election process due to an unforeseen event. Wyoming’s primary election is slated for Aug. 18. Regardless of what happens with the coronavirus, that election date is unlikely to change.
Will Dinneen, communications and policy director for the Secretary of State’s office, noted Wyoming’s state primary falls later on the calendar than most states, putting it in a slightly better spot with regard to COVID-19.
“There is no plan from the Secretary of State to move the August primary,” Dinneen said.
“With that being said, we’re looking at facets of this fast-moving situation with COVID-19 to protect voters, poll workers and county staff, and to be able to respond nimbly as we move forward to that date, which looks far, far away, but it’ll come faster than we know.”
State officials are working on a plan to expand absentee voting to anyone who prefers that option, Dinneen said. Meanwhile, states like Georgia and Michigan have already decided to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters for their upcoming primaries.
If Wyoming charts a similar course, state officials will have to ensure county clerks have the resources they need to adjust. The Secretary of State’s office recently sent out a survey to clerks statewide asking about their situations.
In an interview Tuesday, Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee said her office has considered hiring a third-party vendor to send out ballots to registered voters.
“For us to do that manually in-house would be a logistical nightmare,” Lee said.
An increase in absentee voting also could mean a delay in releasing the final results of the primary, Lee said, as Wyoming law prohibits county clerks from processing absentee ballots until Election Day.
“Some states do allow election officials to start the processing of the absentee ballots earlier,” Lee said. “They aren’t allowed to tabulate them, but they can go through and start processing them just to make the whole process go faster. I would hope we would help entertain something like that.”
There is also the question of how many election officials will be available for the August primary, as every polling location must have at least three election judges to ensure things run smoothly.
“We are deeply concerned about the availability of our election judges, because the vast majority of them are senior citizens,” Lee said.
The state Legislature appears increasingly likely to hold at least one special session in the next few months, but it probably wouldn’t bring any changes to state statutes on elections.
Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, who chairs the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, said he didn’t anticipate any legislation related to elections coming from a potential session.
“If that statutory language was not there allowing the emergency order (from the Secretary of State) in regards to elections, then you would definitely see the Legislature taking action in this regard,” Lindholm said. “But I feel like we’re covered as it stands right now, after my talks with the election officials and county clerks.”
A pivot to more absentee voting could also have an effect on how candidates run their campaigns over the summer. Lindholm noted absentee ballots have to be sent out 45 days prior to the Aug. 18 election, meaning many voters could make up their minds by early July.
“You’re going to have to do all of your campaigning before that first part of July, because most people are going to be voting as soon as they get their ballot,” Lindholm said.
Joe Barbuto, chairman of the Wyoming Democratic Party, said many of his party’s candidates are already looking at how to connect with voters while avoiding in-person interactions.
“It’s not like the options that we have are completely foreign to us,” Barbuto said. “Social media, Zoom and all those other platforms that allow us to connect virtually; they’re already there.”
Barbuto was also optimistic that voters would still participate if absentee voting is expanded, especially given the turnout for the party’s caucus this year. While still being tabulated, this year’s turnout has already surpassed the roughly 7,200 voters who participated in the 2016 caucus, according to the party.
“People want to participate, especially right now with everything that’s going on in the world and in Wyoming … so I think they’re going to be looking for any way they can to participate in these upcoming elections and campaigns,” Barbuto said.
Meanwhile, the Wyoming Republican Party appears set to move its statewide convention in early May, originally scheduled to be held in Gillette, to an online format.
A reporter’s request for additional comment from the Wyoming GOP had not been answered by press time.
Even with an expansion of absentee voting, Lee said there would still have to be some physical polling locations available Aug. 18.
“You’re going to have people that recently moved here that weren’t registered to vote that want to participate, and, of course, they wouldn’t be on the voter list,” the county clerk said. “There are people who will want to and will need to be voting in person, and you have to provide facilities for them to do so.”
Any potential changes to the primary process would likely have to made by late May or early June, Lindholm said, and the time frame is also a good one for voters to operate on.
“My advice to people would be as we get closer to the filing period for elections, I’d say probably make the judgment call at the end of May,” Lindholm said. “If we’re still in this kind of situation, I would go ahead and order your absentee ballot.”
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