By Nick Reynolds, WyoFile
WYOMING — The Wyoming Republican Party weighed a number of electoral reforms Saturday that would reduce the political power of Wyoming’s two most populous counties amid ongoing tensions between state party leadership and the Natrona and Laramie County parties.
At the party’s state central committee meeting in Evanston, delegates weighed a redistricting plan that would reduce the membership of the Wyoming Legislature by roughly one-third. The plan would reduce the number of state representatives from 60 to 46 and the number of state senators from 30 to 23. Half of the 46 representatives would be county-specific, the other half distributed based on population. Each county would be represented by one senator, regardless of population.
Some participants criticized the plan for reducing the influence of larger counties while increasing the say of smaller ones who often share representatives across county lines. Critics also argue the plan could come in direct conflict with a 1991 U.S. District Court ruling, Gorin v. Karpan, which set the standard for apportionment used today.
“That would be a concern, obviously, for Natrona County,” Natrona County GOP Chairman Kevin Taheri said of the reform implications. “We would get a lot less representatives than we have now.”
Legal precedent likely would not support such a dramatic reduction in number, Legislative Service Office Director Matt Obrecht said. Though the number of representatives and senators for each county has fluctuated over the years, according to a Legislative Service Office document, Wyoming has not counted 23 senators since the early 20th Century, and has had no fewer than 50 House members since 1903.
However, recent redistricting actions in states like West Virginia have given some states reason to believe legal precedents could be challenged in the courts, Obrecht said. Wyoming, which has been subject to a number of lawsuits on the issue, could potentially see other court cases challenging its current redistricting plans.
The state party also used a recently passed bylaw change to approve an effort to punish the Natrona and Laramie County Republican Parties by reducing the number of delegates — and thus votes — each gets at the state party convention, party members said. Thousands of dollars in unpaid dues since 2019 prompted the action, according to the new bylaw. Both county parties have declined to pay their dues amid an ongoing legal battle with the state party over what each claimed was an illegal vote at the party’s 2019 summer convention.
The county parties’ outstanding dues — which total thousands of dollars — must be paid by Sept. 30 to avoid the delegate losses. Laramie County has paid $700 of its back payments to the party, Chairwoman Dani Olsen told WyoFile, but she has been so far unsuccessful in removing her party from the list.
Such a reduction would reduce the influence of larger counties like Laramie and Natrona in party decision-making to the same level as smaller counties like Weston or Niobrara.
Less clear at Saturday’s meeting, however, was the reaction around recent news that the Laramie County Clerk misallocated numerous precinct committee seats during the 2020 elections. That discussion was conducted behind closed doors in a three-hour executive session. All participants were required to sign non-disclosure agreements, and are forbidden from discussing the content of the meeting, as is the case with most Wyoming GOP executive session meetings.
The precinct committee seat allocation error — which resulted from a miscalculation by the Laramie County Clerk’s office while certifying election results last year, according to a statement from Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee — resulted in some precincts electing one too many committee positions and others being short one, a violation of state election code.
In all, 10 precincts for the Republican Party and 12 for the Democratic Party were affected, according to a news release from the Laramie County Clerk’s office last week acknowledging the error. According to Laramie County Party Chair Dani Olsen, six total precinct committeemen and women were improperly certified by the county clerk, while three were improperly seated by the party itself. For the under-allocated districts, two precinct committeemen and women were disenfranchised, while an additional six seats did not have any additional people running.
“The Clerk’s office deeply regrets this error,” Lee wrote in a statement. “We work closely with the political parties throughout the election process and will continue to do so to ensure our elections are conducted with accuracy, transparency, and integrity.”
The revelations, which came about after an investigation by Carbon County Republican Party Chairman Joey Correnti, quickly became ammunition in the Wyoming Republican Party’s larger push for “election integrity,” coinciding with a similar trend seen in the Republican Party nationwide.
U.S. Congressional candidates like Wyoming State Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) have made election integrity a centerpiece of their campaigns. On the heels of partisan efforts to audit elections narrowly lost by former President Donald Trump in states like Arizona, the Wyoming Republican Party State Central Committee last winter passed a resolution calling on Wyoming lawmakers to develop an election audit system. Wyoming GOP chairman Frank Eathorne has been a member of a Republican National Committee task force seeking to bolster election integrity after Trump’s unproven claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.
Representatives from the Wyoming Republican Party say news of the party’s actions will be forthcoming, citing steps that were taken in executive session. Wyoming Republican Party Chairman Frank Eathorne declined to discuss specific actions regarding the Laramie County Precinct allotments.
Eathorne wrote in a text message on Tuesday that a news release outlining actions taken at the meeting would be available “sometime this afternoon.” However, the press release, which was eventually released Thursday afternoon, did not address any specific actions taken at the meeting.
Some members of the party argued before the weekend meeting that the Laramie County incident is evidence that political parties should be allowed to conduct their own partisan elections as they see fit.
“These statutory violations stand as an unfortunate example of the ever-increasing cases of ‘election irregularities’ we are seeing nationwide that are tantamount to election integrity concerns being present in the conduct of our elections,” a letter of concern drafted by Lincoln County Republican Party chairwoman and former State Rep. Marti Halverson obtained by WyoFile read. “Not election integrity concerns committed by the voting public itself, but unchecked election integrity concerns perpetrated against the legitimate voting public, committed by the very individual who is elected, entrusted, and charged by statute (as well as their oath of office) with the responsibility of accurately, properly, and legally preparing, conducting, and certifying our elections.”
In the letter, members of the Lincoln County Republican Party Central Committee called for the immediate drafting of legislation removing “all state government involvement” in any political party’s partisan elections, adding “some administrators of our government are either unable or unwilling to accurately, legally, fairly, and properly perform these duties with precision and integrity.”
The Wyoming GOP is currently fighting numerous lawsuits regarding the integrity of its own elections, including allegations the party interfered in the seating of new leadership in Uinta County and improperly conducted a vote at a recent convention.
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