Volume 8, Number 34 - November 13, 2008
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
Special election called for HD 22
In a critical decision Wednesday, the State Canvassing Board declared the Nov. 4 House District 22 (HD 22) election in a single Lincoln County precinct between Jim Roscoe (D-Wilson) and Charles Stough (R-Pinedale) null and void.
The decision comes amidst allegations of voter irregularities in Lincoln County’s Alpine Precinct where 11 votes were improperly cast.
While Lincoln County Clerk Jeanne Wagner has said the miscast votes were honest mistakes, the irregularities were enough to compromise the county’s election results.
The decision sets into motion a Nov. 25 special election in the lone precinct, even though the State Attorney General Bruce Salzburg advised a district-wide special election.
HD 22 comprises three separate counties – Lincoln (one precinct), Teton (three precincts) and Sublette (seven precincts).
In the general election, a mere four votes separated the two HD 22 candidates with Roscoe winning 2,891 to 2,887.
But after the Canvassing Board’s decision, the candidates only hold on to their votes in Teton and Sublette counties.
Roscoe, who was in Cheyenne, said after the meeting the board had struggled with the decision but in the end it decided 3-1 “not to disenfranchise the absentee voters” from Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. “They didn’t want to lose all the votes that had been represented.”
He said much of the debate was over language contained in Wyoming Statute 22-16-122.
“It was a really great process to watch,” Roscoe said. “There were really good arguments on both sides.”
He called the decision “precedent-setting and historic.”
Stough also traveled to Cheyenne for the meeting. He had no comment after the decision.
The board members – Republicans Secretary of State (Chairman) Max Maxfield, State Auditor Rita Meyer, State Treasurer Joseph Meyer and Democratic Gov. Dave Freudenthal – were required to consider Statute 22-16-122 in their ruling.
The statute reads the canvassing board cannot certify the vote if “a material error in the conduct of the election has occurred” and if that error equals or exceeds the candidates’ vote differential.
In this case, the board decided, 3-1, that 11 irregular votes outweighed a four-vote differential but it did not feel a district-wide election was appropriate.
Maxfield cast the lone dissenting vote, favoring a district-wide special election.
According to State Election Director Peggy Nighswonger, canvassing board meetings are open to the public and public comments are welcome but only written testimony from the relevant county clerk offices are considered for decision.
Presumably because both Sublette and Teton counties have not identified irregular votes, they will not conduct a special election.
In the general election, both candidates easily won their home counties. In Teton County Roscoe beat Stough by 765 votes and in Sublette County Stough beat Roscoe by 806.
Only in Lincoln County – with 736 total votes – was the election close. Roscoe beat Stough by 45 votes.
And somewhere in those totals are the 11 miscast votes.
Unlike Sublette County with multiple precincts inside HD 22, Lincoln County has only one, which means any votes from outside that precinct are ineligible in HD 22.
With anonymous ballots, it’s impossible to determine which 11 votes belong to the errant electors.
The best solution under Wyoming Statues is a single-precinct special election, according to the canvassing board.
By those same statues, “the special election will be conducted by the county clerk as nearly as possible in the manner of a general election.” That means new voters can register at the polls on the special election day, Nov. 25.
According to Sublette County Republican Party Chair Cat Urbigkit, it was the Lincoln County Republican Party (LCR) that found the questionable 11 votes. She added after the irregularities were brought to Wagner’s attention “the clerk’s office was very diligent in looking into those discrepancies.”
Urbigkit, who advocated a district-wide special election in a letter to the Canvassing Board, said three more irregularities might have been found by the LCR.
She said the LCR could have found votes from two potential felons and one dead person.
And more problems could exist.
State law provides county clerks with 10 days to update election records, which includes entering names of newly registered voters. State law also mandates that the State Canvassing Board meet “no later than the second Wednesday following the election.”
Because the board certified the vote before county commissioners are required to submit their updated election records for public review, Urbigkit says the two deadlines are illogical.
She said the only reason the Lincoln County votes were scrutinized is due to the single precinct’s size.
“We’re very fortunate it was a small district and the Lincoln County clerk got on it as quickly as she did,” Urbigkit said, adding Sublette County’s large number of newly registered voters requires more time to update.
When those lists are updated, Urbigkit said the Sublette County Republicans plan to look at them. But right now there isn’t enough time.
“It’s unfortunate we won’t have an opportunity to look through the voting records (before the vote certification),” she said.
Urbigkit said while she strongly supported a district-wide special election, it is almost impossible to expect perfection at the polls, especially this year.
“There is always human error,” she said. “But we’ve never had such a high voter turnout. Our polling places were slammed with people.”
Regardless of the errors, the special election could create a reversal of fortunes for the candidates.
“It’s just how the process works and we have to abide by the process,” said Sublette County Democratic Party Chair Dave Racich. “I’m not going to say if it benefits one candidate over another.”
A casual observer might question how a Democrat would ever get elected in HD 22. Both Teton and Lincoln counties voted for Sen. John McCain 70 to 30 percent and Sublette County voted 75 to 21 percent for the Republican presidential candidate.
How did the same voters split down the middle over HD 22 candidates?
It could be that both were strong, likable candidates with very similar views. During October’s candidate forum in Pinedale, the two struggled to draw clear-cut differences between their philosophical and political beliefs.
It could also be a question of hometown favorites. With both candidates capturing their respective counties and splitting Lincoln County, the race was predetermined to be geographically equal.
Another factor might come from the top of the ticket. It is possible that enthusiasm for then Sen. Barack Obama led to a disproportionate number of Democratically sympathetic voters.
The numbers show a strong trend.
In the 2004 general election Lincoln County had 7, 993 votes cast, while in 2008 that number increased nine percent to 8,615.
Whether the increase benefited one candidate or the other is up for speculation, and it’s not clear if voters in the Alpine precinct will maintain Roscoe’s slim lead.
Speculation notwithstanding, special elections historically attract far fewer voters.
The last Wyoming legislative special election was in 2002 between Liz Gentile (D-Casper) and Bob Tanner (R-Casper) for House District 36.
Gentile won the general election—where almost 3,000 votes were cast—by one vote, but an automatic recount produced different vote totals for both candidates.
That forced the State Canvassing Board to call a special election where Gentile won by 323 votes. Just over 2,000 votes were cast in that election meaning a third of the general election’s voters stayed away from the polls for the special election.
How this will affect HD 22 is anybody’s guess, but one thing is for sure.
In Lincoln County, both candidates are starting from zero.
Things are going to move quickly. The Lincoln County Clerk office must assemble teams of election officials, print ballots, mail absentee ballots and submit publishable announcements of the upcoming election.
And they must do it all in a fraction of their usual preparation time.
For the candidates, it means they must again mobilize their faithful and encourage Alpine residents to make a trip to the polls in 13 days.
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