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State readies for unique election

By Nick Reynolds

Casper Star-Tribune

Via- Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER  – As COVID-19’s interruptions on everyday life began stretching into the late-spring and early summer, voters around the country began looking toward their upcoming elections – and a pivotal presidential election in November – with apprehension and uncertainty about how exactly things would work.

From logistical questions like whether we’d be waiting days or weeks for the results of the election, to the practical questions of finding an alternative to voting in a crowded gymnasium or post office, the early days of the pandemic offered little indication of how the country would conduct an election, only that it would.

With little more than a week until Wyoming voters go to the polls for this year’s primaries, however, many of those questions seem to have been resolved.

While holding off of an expanded vote-by-mail program, the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office recently expanded its absentee balloting program and successfully secured funding for mechanical upgrades to modernize the vote.

Recognizing the delays in election returns seen in places such as New York, Michigan and Georgia, the Wyoming County Clerk’s Association secured a waiver last week to begin counting absentee ballots the Thursday and Friday before the election to ensure expedient results.

The group also designed new protocols to ensure the counting of those absentee ballots is subject to a similar level of scrutiny as the traditional, in-person voting process.

“Laramie County, last I checked, had sent out over 10,000 absentees, and they have gotten over 5,000 back,” said Linda Fritz, the Crook County clerk and the head of the Wyoming County Clerk’s Association. “So to be able to process 5,000 ballots, just on Election Day, would have made it very difficult to get the results out as quickly as we normally get them out.”

The changes implemented by the state have been key for many of Wyoming’s voters to better engage in the process at a time when campaign rituals of public forums and debates have shifted to postcards, statements on social media and livestreaming on platforms like YouTube and Facebook.

People who have rarely voted early or absentee before are so far reporting positive experiences, saying the process established by the state has not only been easy to use, but has allowed them to be more intentional about the people they vote for.

In a tweet to a Star-Tribune reporter, one voter said their absentee ballot had been delivered and they were waiting for the local newspaper to provide information on the candidates before turning it in. Others said they appreciated the time to carefully consider whether they wanted to vote as a Democrat or Republican without the pressure of a line of voters waiting behind them on primary day.

“I told the woman working that day that I was indecisive, which you don’t always get to do when there’s people behind you and registering in person,” said Rev. Inger Hanson, a progressive-leaning voter in Jackson who registered as a Republican this year. “I was there sort of by myself at the little office, and she was like, ‘Well, let me show you the two sample ballots.’ And so then I was able to be like, ‘Oh, I have far more names I’m worried about on this ballot than on another one.’ It gave me a little breathing room.”

“You may have no problem voting for the bigger candidates that you might know about,” Dakota Metzger, a Laramie resident, said in an interview. “But then there’s all of these down ballot races they know nothing about and they may just skip that section or vote for someone they don’t know. In a lot of cases, having a mail-in option gives you an opportunity to do your research and actually vote in someone they want and to know more about the position they’re running for as well.”

The pandemic has brought with it numerous electoral challenges.

Metzger, a volunteer for Democratic House candidate Karlee Provenza, says their campaign has made educating voters on changes in the process a centerpiece of their outreach.

Nonpartisan organizations like the Equality State Policy Center have taken a renewed interest in ensuring voters get their ballots in the mail by Monday: a push to account for the inherent delays in the postal service and the fact that Wyoming – unlike other states – will only count ballots received by election day.

Other states permit ballots that had been postmarked by the day of the vote.

“I’m concerned about this because I don’t think there’s been much if any outreach or education directed toward the general public about this point yet,” police center Executive Director Chris Merrill wrote in an email. “ESPC is recommending that people plan to put both their primary ballots and general election ballots in the mail at least seven days in advance of the primaries, and again seven days in advance of the general elections, out of an abundance of caution, to ensure their votes arrive in time and are counted.”

Budget problems created by the pandemic have also caused some early concerns for ballot access groups, who have decried reductions in polling places due to a lack of suitable space, poll workers or a simple shortage of cash to make it work.

“With revenue the way it is through the state because of COVID, a lot of counties have had to massively cut back their budgets to try and balance them before this new fiscal year,” said Fritz.

The concern about fewer polling places is acute on the Wind River Reservation.

Two years ago, some residents alleged they encountered difficulties while trying to vote.

After the Fremont County Clerk’s Office announced a move from numerous polling places to eight “election centers” scattered around the county, the national Native American voter organization, Four Directions, called on local officials to roll out additional polling places to serve the area’s Native population beyond those established in communities such as Fort Washakie and Ethete.

“Because of this pandemic, the election officials should be working with the tribes or the tribal members within the community,” said Four Directions’ co-founder, OJ Semans Sr.