CASPER — A bill to transition Wyoming to a runoff election system received initial approval from a legislative committee Thursday.
The bill still needs to succeed in both the House and Senate, but if enacted into law, Senate File 145 would require a runoff election after a primary election if no single candidate captured the majority of votes. A candidate would need to receive over 50% of the votes to be considered the winner of a primary election.
In packed primary races, if no candidate obtained enough votes, a runoff election would occur, with the two leading candidates facing off against one another. The Wyoming Legislature’s Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee voted to advance the bill on Thursday.
Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, the bill’s sponsor, said switching to a runoff election system would bolster voter confidence in the state’s voting process.
“The bill is to ensure that the winner of the primary election for federal, statewide and the state Legislature, has the support of a majority of voters,” Biteman said on Tuesday. “Runoffs are common in areas of one-party rule, and they are helpful when there is a large pool of candidates. Not only is Wyoming a predominately Republican state, as you know, (it) often has many candidates run for federal and statewide office.”
Skeptics of the bill pointed to the burdensome cost and low voter turnout often associated with runoff elections.
The Secretary of State’s office estimated that conducting runoff elections would come with a one-time cost of $168,408 to update voter registration systems, in addition to about $17,500 for additional election materials.
But the cost for counties to conduct the runoff elections would be significantly higher — estimated at $1.1 million, according to the County Clerks Association.
Mary Lankford, a representative for the County Clerks Association, said the timing and cost of implementing runoff elections next year would be nearly impossible. At worst, transitioning to a runoff election system as early as in 2022 would risk the integrity of the elections.
The Wyoming County Commissioners Association also opposed the proposed legislation, mainly due to the high cost of conducting more elections.
Before advancing the runoff elections bill out of committee on Thursday morning, lawmakers introduced multiple amendments. One amendment adopted by committee members would delay the formal switch to runoff elections by a year, to Jan. 1, 2023.
That means it wouldn’t happen before the next round of primary elections, including a contested race between Rep. Liz Cheney and at least two state lawmakers, Sen. Anthony Bouchard, R-Cheyenne, and Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Casper. Next year’s gubernatorial race would also not be affected.
In another change, the committee added language to the bill to appropriate $1.5 million from the state’s general fund. That money could be used by the state and counties to conduct the runoff elections.
Some individuals who testified encouraged committee members to consider rank-choice voting as a more economical and efficient voting process.
“When you fill out a rank-choice voting ballot, we’re not forced to pick one candidate and move on,” Chris Merrill, of the Equality State Policy Center, explained to lawmakers. “We can rather rank the candidates on the ballot, in order of our preference.
“In the case of a primary or general election with multiple candidates, rank choice voting creates what is known as an instant runoff,” he added. “It does this because it allows voters to thoroughly express their preferences in one election, on one day, on one ballot.”
But the concept of adopting rank-choice voting did not gain much ground on Thursday.
The runoff election bill endorsed by the Senate’s Corporations Committee on Thursday captured national attention earlier this week when Donald Trump Jr. urged his followers to support the Wyoming bill introducing runoff elections. He pushed it as a way to defeat Cheney, who angered Wyoming’s far right when she voted to impeach former President Donald Trump in January.