Runoff election push returns after setback

CASPER —The effort to bring runoff elections to Wyoming’s primaries has been revived. 

Last year, a legislative committee failed to advance legislation that would institute runoff elections if no one candidate received more than 50% of the vote. 

On Monday, Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, filed his own bill and constitutional amendment that would do just that. If successful, the representative’s runoff election bill would go into effect in 2023 — in time for the 2024 statewide elections. The runoff bill would apply to statewide elected officials, state legislators and any federal races. 

Proponents of runoff elections say they would prevent someone from succeeding with less than a majority vote. 

In Wyoming, elections are often effectively determined in the primary, as the state is deeply red. The GOP supermajority can also lead to crowded Republican primaries in which the winning candidate receives less than a majority of the votes. 

As it stands now, candidates only need to receive a plurality of the vote to advance to the general election. 

Runoff supporters often cite Gov. Mark Gordon’s 2018 election to make their case. Gordon won his primary with roughly one-third of the Republican vote. Approximately 47% of GOP voters supported the two runners-up: the late Foster Friess and Harriet Hageman (who is now challenging Rep. Liz Cheney). 

If a runoff had been in effect at the time, that 47% would have decided between Gordon and Friess, Neiman argued. 

“Call me nuts, but I believe Wyoming voters are engaged,” he said. “You’ve got two candidates running to be the lone Republican candidate. I actually believe there’s going to be more emphasis and more desire for the candidates to work very diligently to court voters.” 

However, voter turnout has historically declined almost across the board between the

primaries and the runoffs, according to FairVote, a nonpartisan electoral reform organization. 

But states such as Georgia have recently bucked that trend. 

As Neiman’s bill stands, the primary would be moved from August to May and the runoff would take place in August if it is necessary. 

Runoff legislation moved through the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee this past interim, but the accompanying constitutional amendment failed. Without a constitutional amendment, the runoff bill is essentially moot, so the committee then voted to table the legislation. 

Neiman’s personal bill follows multiple contentious and crowded meetings that addressed primary election reform in 2021. 

In weeks leading up to a committee meeting, Neiman had asked lawmakers to pledge their support for changes to primary elections, particularly vying for a runoff election, because “Wyoming has struggled with primary election integrity,” he wrote in an email to lawmakers. 

This move led many lawmakers on the committee to come down on him over the pledge. 

“I think you made like a freshman error to call everybody out on this and cause dissension when there’s not enough information on the table,” Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said at the time. 

A committee meeting that addressed runoffs later in the summer was so well attended that dozens more chairs were brought in. Even then, people were still standing at the back of the room. 

Secretary of State Ed Buchanan and Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne were both present, in addition to a number of other state Democrat and Republican officials. 

Despite widespread engagement from Wyoming’s political class, Neiman’s bill and constitutional amendment face some tall hurdles. At the upcoming budget session, bills not related to redistricting or the state’s two-year budget need two-thirds support to even be heard. 

The bill cannot be enacted without the accompanying constitutional amendment, which requires two-thirds support from each chamber to be put on the ballot in the next general election. If the amendment makes it on the ballot, it requires a majority of the total votes cast to go into effect. 

“It’s a really high bar,” Neiman said. 

Even if the bill fails this time around, it’s likely to come before the Joint Corporations committee again in the upcoming interim and in the 2023 general session, when measures do not require two-thirds support to be introduced. 

Support for runoff elections in Wyoming gained momentum after the practice was backed by former President Donald Trump, who remains popular here. 

Trump issued multiple statements on the matter, acknowledging Wyoming’s history of Republican candidates splitting votes and the need for “one candidate.” He branded runoff legislation as a way to take down Rep. Liz Cheney, who angered Trump when she voted to impeach him in January 2021. 

After Trump endorsed lawyer Harriet Hageman in September, a number of candidates chose to drop out because of the state’s history of splitting votes. The push to change Wyoming’s primary elections has been going on for a number of years, but it is gaining traction due to the increased desire to unseat Cheney, who angered many Republicans with her repeated criticism of the former president. 

“I don’t think we can have a serious, merit-based discussion as long as it's going to be motivated by this big desire to unseat Liz Cheney,” said Joe Barbuto, chair of the Wyoming Democratic Party. 

If runoffs are eventually instituted, they will come with a notable price tag. It would cost about $260,000 between the extra administrative costs and additional absentee ballots. A second election cycle in August would cost roughly $1.1 million statewide, county clerks have previously testified. 

When it comes to reforming primaries, the Corporations Committee also looked at ranked-choice and jungle primaries over the past few months.