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State’s top elections official backs hand counting ballots in Park County

The third time could be the charm for local GOP members who remain skeptical of Wyoming’s vote tabulation machines. But questions about the legality of hand-counting proposals remain.

An Albany County polling place on primary election day in 2022. (Mike Vanata/WyoFile)

by Maggie Mullen, WyoFile

The Park County Commission must again decide on a request from local GOP members to count ballots by hand in the upcoming election. 

“We are here to request that the board choose to have humans count the ballots,” Sen. Dan Laursen (R-Powell) said at a Tuesday meeting. 

Currently, counties across Wyoming conduct elections with paper ballots that are tallied by electronic counting machines. 

Those machines do not have the hardware or software required to allow internet connectivity and are only accessible to authorized personnel like county clerks. Wyoming law also requires testing of the machines before they are used on Election Day. The time-consuming process is open to the public but typically draws little attendance

Nonetheless, the machines remain dubious to some. 

“The public demands and expects purity and transparency of elections,” Dave McMillan, a GOP precinct committeeman, told the commission. “But right now, we cannot know if legal or illegal votes can be counted or not counted.”

Counting ballots by hand is the only way to be certain of those things, McMillan said. 

This is the third iteration of a hand-count request in Park County since 2022, all three of which have involved members of the local GOP. While the previous two proposals were denied and varied in their exact details, this most recent effort has a major distinction — it has the support of the state’s chief elections officer. 

“I think one of the things that is frustrating for the individuals here today, it’s a frustration I share, which is the lack of a more complete form of verification of the machines,” Secretary of State Chuck Gray told the commission via Zoom. 

Gray ran for office on unverified claims that Wyoming’s elections have “tremendous problems” and a promise to fix that by banning ballot drop boxes and making ballot harvesting a felony. At the time, Gray also said he would support adding a hand-count audit to the election process, so his support in Park County to remove the tabulation machines altogether is not that surprising. 

Meanwhile, neither Gray nor Laursen have publicly questioned the legitimacy of their own election victories — which, along with the rest of Wyoming’s 2022 primary election results, were tabulated with electronic counting machines and were determined 100% accurate by a statistical audit

The commission did not commit one way or another on Tuesday to the hand-count proposal. 

“Well, it’s clear to me that we have some research to do from everything that’s been said here today,” Commission Chairwoman Dossie Overfield said.

A diagram of Wyoming’s audit and election results process, created by staff under former Secretary of State Ed Buchanan. The diagram, which was part of a public information campaign, was removed from the secretary’s website along with other election integrity and security facts in early March 2023, a few months after Secretary of State Chuck Gray took office. (Courtesy Wyoming Secretary of State)

Background

Skepticism toward electronic counting machines flourished in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. He and his allies asserted the machines could be manipulated, though dozens of courts rejected his claims that the election was stolen from him. In fact, Fox News was forced to pay nearly $800 million to one voting machine company to settle a defamation lawsuit after repeatedly broadcasting falsehoods about the equipment.

In Park County, the first hand-count request came in April 2022, when supporters asked to perform a hand count in the 2022 election after the ballots had been electronically counted. 

“We’re not trying to unseat the machine. We are trying to prove the validity of our vote. That is our one purpose” organizer Boone Tidwell told the commission at the time.

Then Secretary of State Ed Buchanan cautioned officials, informing them that county commissioners are not statutorily authorized to decide how ballots are counted and that such a policy decision should be taken up with the Wyoming Legislature. 

Ultimately, the commission heeded Buchanan’s advice, which was backed by Park County and Prosecuting Attorney Bryan Skoric. 

“Pursuant to Wyoming law, Park County, like all other counties, is mandated to utilize ballots that have been designed to be tabulated via counting machine and voting equipment,” Skoric wrote in a letter after the commission asked for his legal guidance. 

Skoric cited federal law, the Wyoming Constitution and state statute, including a section of the election code that prohibits manual tabulation of ballots that are designed to be counted by machine. 

“At present, and throughout Wyoming, all ballots are designed to be counted by machine, thereby invoking this statute,” Skoric wrote. “This statute defines the law and the law simply cannot be ignored by local officials.”

Additionally, Skoric pointed to a section of the secretary of state’s administrative rules on election procedures that says election results “shall be” submitted no later than 10:30 p.m., unless the county clerk contacts the secretary and “a mutually agreeable alternative time is determined.”

“Voting machines allow timely tabulation, whereas hand counting could take days,” Skoric wrote. 

After initial failure, supporters of the proposal kept at it, but changed their request to recount ballots from the 2020 election by hand. That idea, however, was also rejected when Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill determined it would be illegal and unconstitutional. 

Third time’s a charm?

Tuesday, Sen. Laursen argued that a hand count could clear any legal hurdles because of the dozens of times “counting boards” appears in state law. 

“Sorry to keep repeating ‘counting board’ but I think it’s important that it was left in [statute] and it tells us how to deal with these,” Laursen commented, while reading aloud to the commission the different sections of statute where the phrase appears. 

First Deputy County Clerk Hans Odde, however, said “counting boards” does not refer to hand counting “in any way” but is “an operation when a county clerk decides to bring the ballots back to a central location to be run through the machine.”

Gray took a different approach. 

For one, he said the attorney general’s memo was not relevant to the discussion since it dealt with public examination of vote records. He also focused on one section of state statute — 22-11-102. 

Secretary of State Chuck Gray sits for a portrait. (Courtesy/State of Wyoming)

“The board of county commissioners of each county may adopt for use, either experimentally or permanently, in any election in any or all polling places within the county, any electronic voting system authorized by the law,” the statute reads. 

Because it says “may,” Gray said “the choice” to use an electronic voting system “is a matter of decision for the board.” 

“Again, it’s a ‘may.’ I want to emphasize that for the commissioners and also the media who often misrepresent what I say,” Gray said. 

Commissioner Scott Mangold said he understood the statute to mean something else. 

“Basically it deals with us as being able to pick the electronic voting device not to decide if we’re going to do it with hand ballots or the electronic machine itself,” Mangold said. “This allows us to, you know, if there’s three different kinds of voting machines to pick which one that we like.” 

In concluding remarks, Commissioner Lee Livingston reiterated how Wyoming’s voting system is protected from interference. 

“The machines we’re currently using are not in any way shape or form connected to the outside world,” Livingston said. “I’m concerned that there’s a lot of folks on this bandwagon that don’t even know what band is playing.”

Commissioner Overfield said the commission may ask the attorney general for another opinion as it pertains to this specific request. 

“We don’t want to go against the Constitution of Wyoming and we don’t want to break the law,” Overfield said. 

Overfield said she hoped the commission would have an answer by sometime in April. 


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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