Clerk’s decision to close polling places draws formal complaint

Posted 7/28/20

A decision by the Park County Clerk’s Office to eliminate several rural polling places for this year’s elections is proving unpopular with some voters and officials.

Two citizens …

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Clerk’s decision to close polling places draws formal complaint


A decision by the Park County Clerk’s Office to eliminate several rural polling places for this year’s elections is proving unpopular with some voters and officials.

Two citizens unhappy with Clerk Colleen Renner opting to shutter the Garland, Clark, Heart Mountain, Wapiti and South Fork areas polling locations for the 2020 elections filed a complaint with the county attorney’s office last week; they allege the clerk violated the state elections code.

In their two-page complaint, Vince Vanata of Cody and Wendy Annis of Clark say it was “reasonable” to close locations for next month’s primary election, given the uncertainty that existed around the COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year. However, they say that leaving those polling locations closed for November’s general election is “unwarranted” — and they contend the clerk must present her plans at a Park County Commission meeting.

After consulting with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Office, Renner announced Friday that during the Park County commissioners’ Aug. 19 meeting, she’ll officially inform the board of her intent to keep the Clark, Heart Mountain, Wapiti and South Fork polling places closed for the general election.

“This is just a whole different ball game,” Renner said in an interview last week. “I feel in my heart I’m doing the very best that I can and I’m trying to make it fair to all voters. That’s my objective, is everyone is entitled to vote — whether it be absentee, whether it be early voting here at the courthouse, or whether they choose to go to the polls.”

Whether putting the item on the commissioners’ agenda next month will resolve Vanata and Annis’ complaint remains to be seen.

“We have not heard anything officially from the county attorney’s office and we cannot at this time say that we are satisfied with anything until the entire process is completed,” Vanata said Sunday.

Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric is responsible for reviewing the complaint and has not yet taken action. Skoric could theoretically file criminal charges if he found a violation of the election code, though Vanata said Sunday that he’s not looking to have Renner put in jail or fined.

“I want her to do the right thing” and abide by state law, Vanata said.

Renner has said the decision to shutter the sites is intended in part to reduce the number of election judges, who have become harder and harder to find — particularly amid the pandemic. The clerk has also said it would effectively be impossible to practice social distancing at some of the polling places that are being eliminated, like the South Fork Fire Hall.

As for reopening the sites for the general election, Renner believes that asking some voters to cast their ballots at one place in August and another in November would just create confusion. That’s especially after her office contacted every registered voter in the affected precincts and informed them of their new polling places.

“To me, once you designate something for a voting season, you should stay with that … just to not confuse voters,” she said.

But there’s been some vocal disagreement about offering fewer polling sites.


‘We do need to get back to normal’

Vanata is the secretary of the Park County Republican Party and in remarks on KODI-AM 1400 radio this month, he said there’s widespread skepticism among Wyoming Republicans about polling places being consolidated. Vanata said the consensus at the state party’s convention in Gillette last month was that this is “a move by the Wyoming [County] Clerk’s Association to get mail-in voting to become the new norm.”

“And if we were to start voting by mail, I mean, we would have a very corrupt election,” Vanata said in a call to KODI’s Speak Your Piece. “People were very, very concerned about this.”

The two guests on the program that day, county commissioners Jake Fulkerson and Lloyd Thiel, both expressed doubts about mail balloting leading to fraud.

However, Fulkerson said he understands that Wyomingites like to vote on Election Day at their polling place, “and it’s my intention as a county commissioner to make sure that happens.”

The commissioner also offered a caveat, though: “I just want to caution people that this is not a typical year,” Fulkerson said on the July 2 show. “This is not the year to fall on your sword saying, ‘I’ve gotta vote 100 feet from my house or the world’s coming to an end.’”

For his part, Thiel agreed that the Garland, Clark, Heart Mountain, Wapiti and South Fork polling places should be reopened for the general election. Voting in person or absentee is “a matter of choice,” Thiel said.

“That’s why we had these remote areas,” he said, “was to get the most voters as we could, make it easy for everybody to cast their ballot.”

Thiel added that, “I do believe that we do need to get back to normal as soon as possible.”

The topic had initially been raised in a call from state Rep. Dan Laursen, R-Powell. Laursen said he was “kind of pushing hard” to get the polling places restored.

“At least for the general [election], I think the public ought to be able to go to the polling places that are close by where they live,” Laursen said. “They shouldn’t have to travel 15, 18, 20 miles just to get to town to go to vote.”

As for the shortage of election judges, he said it was just a matter of needing “to work harder at getting them to come and help” — a comment disputed by Fulkerson, who said finding judges is not easy.

Renner said last week that she has about 77 judges signed up and that, with the usual nine polling locations, she’d need about 160; Park County Elections Deputy Pat Cole said the office lost three judges last week after learning they would need to wear masks.


New locations

With the consolidation, Wapiti and South Fork voters will now need to vote in Cody while Heart Mountain, Clark, Garland and Ralston voters will vote in Powell.

Voters can also choose to vote absentee; they’ve been able to cast primary election ballots by mail or in-person at the Park County Courthouse since July 1. The clerk’s office has been strongly encouraging people to vote absentee amid the pandemic.

“We’re just hoping that people don’t show up at the polls. We really are,” First Deputy Park County Clerk Hans Odde told commissioners last week. “That’s the goal of this whole exercise, is that we keep people from congregating at the polling locations.”

Initial indications are that more people are choosing to vote early and remotely.

As of July 21 in Park County, 4,788 voters had requested absentee ballots for the primary election — more than triple the number of absentees cast in the 2016 primary. On top of that, another 4,937 voters had already requested absentee ballots for the general election, Renner said.


Pandemic disruption

Eliminating rural polling places is not a new idea. Last year, the clerk’s office said it might close some locations to save time and money. However, Renner ultimately decided to stick with the nine spots used in 2018 and Park County commissioners approved those locations in an April 7 vote.

But things changed on May 1, when Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Buchanan issued a COVID-19-related directive saying that, unless they received special permission from his office, counties could have no more than seven polling locations. Renner changed course and consolidated to four sites: two in Cody, one in Powell and one in Meeteetse.

“Can I give them your number when they come to me with their pitchforks about not being able to vote in the valley?” Commissioner Lee Livingston, a Wapiti resident, asked Renner when she described the revised plans on May 19.

“Yes, and then I’ll give them Secretary Buchanan’s phone number,” Renner quipped.

However, Buchanan’s office later softened its stance.

In a June 10 memo to county clerks, Election Division Director Kai Schon wrote that, “with the state opening up more and more, you may want to consider requesting a variance.”

Schon noted that the directive was meant to eliminate polling places where there was not enough space for social distances and to address an expected drop in poll workers amid the pandemic.

“If this is not a concern feel free to request a variance,” Schon wrote.

At that point, six counties had already received permission to exceed the seven-location cap; a spokesman for the office didn’t respond to an inquiry seeking updated numbers.


A formality?

Wyoming law says that, in order to change the number or location of polling places, a clerk must publish a notice in the county’s official newspapers for two weeks that lists the date of a commission meeting “where the proposed change will be discussed”; the clerk must also notify the chairmen of the local Republican and Democratic parties at least 15 days ahead of the meeting.

In their complaint filed last week, Vanata and Annis contend that Renner made the decision to close the polls “prior to a public meeting where the public would have an opportunity to voice their support or opposition.”

The Secretary of State Office has indicated that it’s giving clerks some leniency when it’s “impossible” to follow all of the notification requirements spelled in state law. In his June memo, state elections director Shon said clerks could simply write letters to their commissioners and party chairmen if the need arose to further consolidate or add polling locations. However, Vanata and Annis noted the guidance was for the primary election.

“... Given the date of the general election, the clerk has more than ample time to facilitate a properly called public meeting with the county commissioners addressing her concerns as it pertains to the general election with the ability of the general public to have input,” Vanata and Annis wrote.

At the Aug. 19 commission meeting, Renner plans to formally put it on the record that the consolidated polling places will remain in place for November’s general election; she indicated Friday that the decision is effectively final, noting the county published its official proclamation for the general election last week, and it contained the reduced number of polling locations.

“There’s not going to be any discussion, because there’s nothing to discuss,” Renner said Friday.

However, members of the public and commissioners could seek to weigh in.

Vanata said he plans to spread the word about the upcoming meeting — especially those who have voiced concerns about the consolidation.

“Here’s their opportunity to speak,” he said, “and if people choose not to do it, then they really can’t [complain] about it.”

Election 2020