Advocates: Barriers to diverse voter turnout persist in the Equality State


Functional access to the polls and experience of the democratic process in Wyoming varies by demographic, some voting-rights advocates say, with the result that certain groups are still underrepresented in the Equality State.

Pointing to record turn-out in the August primaries, state officials largely disagree. Even before the encouraging primary election turnout this year, Wyoming lawmakers and election leaders had long praised the state’s election laws and voter access as exceptional and, perhaps most of all, secure.

“It’s never been too much of a challenge for me to go to the county clerk and register or get my absentee ballot,” Gov. Mark Gordon said during a press conference in July. “I don’t think it’s an onerous process. If the Legislature wants to look at it a little bit differently, I’m sure that’s their prerogative. But it’s never been an impediment to me.”

That’s not everybody’s experience in Wyoming, however.

“With all due respect, that’s a privileged point of view,” Latino activist and American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming Advocacy Manager Antonio Serrano said of Gordon’s comments. “When you work a blue collar job, it’s not always easy to just walk away from work and go to a poll for who knows how long.”

Multiple studies show that socioeconomics play a role in who votes, as do racial disenfranchisement and gender inequality. Advocates for improving voter access say all of these factors should be recognized when considering why and how to improve access to Wyoming elections.

For many, life in Wyoming revolves around shift work, daycare, balancing school with work and long commutes. More than 61% of Wyomingites ages 16 to 64 worked 50-52 weeks in 2018, according to U.S. data compiled by Headwaters Economics. Wallethub recently ranked Wyoming as the third hardest-working state in the nation.

Many residents have limited internet access to follow the news, research candidates or download an absentee ballot form. Sudden and severe weather can prevent people from voting at the polls, too, particularly in November.

Some election officials in Wyoming say there’s a general lack of familiarity with the state’s election laws, registration rules and early voting opportunities. Many voters don’t realize that, in Wyoming, their registration will be purged if they didn’t vote in the last general election. That often results in people showing up to the polls without necessary records to re-register.

There are many factors that can erode an individual’s sense of civic and voting opportunities, Serrano said, particularly among those who already feel marginalized in Wyoming — where more than 91% of the population identifies as white/caucasian-only. Feelings of disenfranchisement in Wyoming, Serrano added, are underestimated at best, and at worst, expected.

Single-party dominance also bolsters apathy, some fear. Partisan offices at all levels of government in Wyoming are dominated by the GOP. It’s common for incumbents to run for office uncontested; there were 47 uncontested races in Wyoming’s Aug. 18 primary, according to the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office. 

“We live in a state where people have to fight tooth and nail to make changes only to make things more equitable and equal,” Serrano said. “So I get it, when all of that’s in your face every day. I can understand how people can feel like their vote has no power, and how they can say ‘Why bother?’”

Rep. Andi Clifford (D-Riverton), a Northern Arapaho tribal member who grew up on the Wind River Indian Reservation, became the Wyoming state representative for House District 33 in 2018. 

Clifford represents a majority Native American district and is one of few Native Americans elected to the state legislature. She grew up listening to stories from her parents and grandparents about businesses in Lander that posted signs declaring “No Dogs Or Indians Allowed.” Those first revelations of racist attitudes toward Native Americans in Wyoming, she said, instilled a feeling of alienation from the broader community.

“Here I am, 5 years old, and I remember thinking, ‘Why would I even want to come to this town?’” Clifford said. “I’m an Indian girl and there are people who don’t know me, they have never met me, and they already didn’t like me because I’m Indian.”

Growing up on the reservation, conversations about voting and elections were almost always limited to tribal elections and the General Council, she said.

“Nobody really talked about voting in county, state or even federal elections,” Clifford said, “because they just weren’t welcome.”

In 2010, a federal judge ruled that voting district schemes in Fremont County perpetuated “separation, isolation, and racial polarization in the county.” In 2019, the Wyoming Democratic Party asked for an investigation into reports that a poll worker in Fremont County asked Native American voters to read aloud an oath regarding election procedures — a potential violation of voter laws. The Fremont County Attorney determined that no voter suppression efforts had occurred and no laws had been violated. 

Clifford believes attitudes toward voting access today in Fremont County are good, she said. She and others have established good working relationships with county election officials.

Clifford’s own attitude toward getting involved in local elections changed when she was a young adult, she said. She witnessed Native Americans make a successful, years-long campaign in the 1980s to win more seats on local school boards — driven in part to do away with corporal punishment and to instill more focus on Indigenous values, such as native languages. That grassroots movement at the polls convinced her that navigating barriers to voting and running for office was worthwhile, she said.

“There’s still a mentality that ‘my vote doesn’t matter,’” Clifford said. “It does. We have to start grassroots and local. We have to tell our stories.”

Elections officials are aware and sensitive to the fact that disenfranchisement exists in Wyoming, in many forms and for many reasons, Secretary of State spokesman Will Dinneen said. Although state election officials insist that voter access in Wyoming is especially robust, they do not discount feelings of disenfranchisement or special needs and difficulties that some potential voters might face, he said.

“We’re dedicated to making sure that every person who wants to cast a ballot can do so unencumbered,” Dinneen said.

Rusty Bell, a Republican commissioner in Campbell County, said he is concerned that too few people in Wyoming vote. In some local races, there might be 1,500 votes in a race where there are 10,000 eligible voters in the precinct, Bell said.

“That’s just not good,” Bell said. “People need to be more engaged and understand what it means when they don’t vote.”

Bell said he understands that there’s a sense of disenfranchisement among some potential voters. History and demographics indicate it’s all but guaranteed Wyoming will vote for President Donald Trump and that the state will send an all-Republican congressional delegation to Washington D.C., “so why vote?” Bell said. 

“But I think your vote always matters.”

Bell believes that, historically, elected officials in Wyoming — especially at the local levels — have worked hard to represent all constituents, no matter their party affiliation. 

Wyoming was the first to grant women the right to vote — even before it was a state — and took on the “Equality State” moniker. It hasn’t fully lived up to the promise. 

A gender wage gap persists here, and despite a roughly 50-50 split between men and women residents, only 14 women serve in the 90-seat Wyoming Legislature. This month, the Wyoming GOP voted to censure one of its Natrona County delegates, JoAnn True, for her organizing role in the Cowgirl Run Fund; the nonpartisan political action committee encourages and supports women to run for elected office no matter their political affiliation.

Jen Simon is senior policy advisor for the nonpartisan Equality State Policy Center. She also leads the organization’s Gender Lens Project and is a founding member of the Cowgirl Run Fund. She said under-representation in government can have a compounding effect not only on policy, but for those who participate in civic matters such as voting and running for office.

“When we remove barriers to access, and when we have more people vote — particularly when we look through the lens of what happens when women vote, more women get elected and we elect more diverse leaders, which is a better representation of our state,” Simon said.

The goal of getting more eligible voters to register and cast a ballot, according to voting access advocates like Simon, is not to radically shift power from one party to another. A recent Stanford University article reviewed several studies that suggest increasing voter turnout via mail-in or absentee ballot doesn’t favor one party over another. Rather, it creates more civic involvement and a higher level of representation and accountability among elected.

“The scholars found little evidence that Colorado’s all-mail voting disproportionately benefited Republican or Democratic Parties,” the article states. “However, Independents, who had historically engaged in politics less frequently than their Republican and Democratic peers, turned out at nearly 12 percentage points higher than in previous elections.”

The Wyoming Secretary of State’s office has repeatedly touted the state’s voter turnout as on par with other states, and its voter access laws as exceptional and built-to-suit Wyoming’s needs. Yet, advocates for voter access reforms in Wyoming point to recent voter turnout figures — sometimes just 25% in a primary election — as evidence that Wyoming can do better.

Increasing voter participation in Wyoming ought to be a priority, the ACLU’s Serrano said. If more people in Wyoming voted, “it would change things,” he said. “It would bring more perspectives — more diversity for sure — and I think that’s a good thing. How could anybody be against that?”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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