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Voting

A voter fills out her ballot at Casper College during the Nov. 6 general election. The lower turnout of the midterm election means that petitions to add a ballot initiative to the 2020 election will need 20 percent fewer signatures. 

Wyoming’s voters have a lot more power to change things than they realize.

Though Wyomingites may not be able to directly decide how to spend government money or substantially modify the state constitution, the citizens of the Equality State have, at times, worked to create the change their elected leaders could not.

Since 1968, Wyoming’s voters have had the power of initiative and referendum, or the ability to enact laws independent of the Legislature. This means that if a citizen-organized group manages to obtain enough signatures, they can place a proposal for a new law on the following year’s ballot.

In Wyoming, the most recent requirements mandated that 38,818 people needed to sign a petition to get a ballot measure in front of the voters – a number inflated largely due to a presidential election in 2016.

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With deflated turnout in 2018’s midterm elections, the requirement has dropped substantially: down roughly 21 percent, to a total signature requirement of 30,187 signatures, according to the Will Dineen, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office.

However, any prospect Wyoming will have more citizen-supported bills coming down the pike is an unlikely one: throughout its history, Wyoming has only had a handful of citizen-supported bills make the ballot and, in recent years, even petitions that gathered some sort of traction have fallen well short of the state’s signature requirement.

What is a ballot initiative?

Wyoming, like the rest of the United States, is a representative democracy. Its citizens vote to send representatives to Cheyenne to act on their behalf.

While implemented at the state level in accordance with the system outlined by the Founding Fathers, the system can be imperfect at times, and the voters may find the people representing them acting out of step with their own desires.

If they become fed up with the process, citizens may choose to take matters into their own hands. According to the Wyoming Constitution, voters have the ability to draft their own bills to bring directly to the people of the state.

These bills, called ballot measures, can be put on the ballot two ways: one, if a two-thirds majority of the House of Representatives and the Senate choose to support it, or if the citizen authors of the bill – which is first reviewed by the Secretary of State — manage to obtain a certain number of signatures from registered voters who support their proposed legislation. Though there are no floor debates required, the proposed pieces of legislation are first read and approved by the Secretary of State’s office, and are then subject to the oversight of the office throughout the petitioning process.

Organizers also have to be registered with the Secretary of State prior to introducing their proposal, and must submit the names of petitioners and adhere to campaign finance laws.

Wyoming’s citizen initiative process is considered indirect, meaning that there are some restrictions dictating how those ballot measures actually land on the ballot.

However, the process is slightly different than that in other states with indirect processes, where voter-supported proposals go to the Legislature for approval. Wyoming, rather, restricts when ballot measures can be introduced. According to state statute, ballot initiatives supported by the voters cannot appear on the ballot until after the Legislature has adjourned for the year, to be voted on in the first statewide general election at least 120 days after the legislative session has ended

Though ballot measure processes are common in the United States, with 26 states as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands offering some type of means for the voters to have a direct say in what goes on the ballot each year, Wyoming is a little bit different in how it determines how many signatures a certain group needs to get to place a measure on the ballot. According to the elections database Ballotopedia, while 16 states base their signature requirements on the results of the previous gubernatorial election, only five states – Wyoming included — base their requirements on a share of the number of ballots cast in the preceding general election.

In Wyoming, that share is 15 percent of the total number of voters to participate in the most recent election for the U.S. House of Representatives; the highest required percentage of any state that bases its signature requirements on election turnout. They also need to gain a proportional share from 16 of the 23 counties.

The deadline for signatures is typically the February preceding the following year’s elections, after the Legislature adjourns for the winter.

Is this significant?

Wyoming has had 41 separate ballot measures put on the ballot in its history. Despite the power to introduce its own bills, Wyoming’s citizens have gotten just seven out of 32 proposed initiatives on the ballot since 1968, passing just three of them: one regarding term limits, one regarding triple trailers, and one regarding railway safety.

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All of those bills, according to the database of ballot measures maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures, came in one year: 1992.

The lack of success could be partly attributable to a successful ballot initiative ratified by the voters in 1998, which required ballot initiatives be accompanied with the signatures of 15 percent of voters in 16 separate counties, something Dineen said was done to ensure smaller, sparsely-populated counties had a say in what ended up on the ballot.

“You could argue the hurdle was set a little higher after 1998,” Dineen said.

“It definitely does [make things more difficult],” he added, “especially due to the geographic distribution you need to meet.”

Even with lower signature requirements and the new rules around ballot initiatives passed in the mid-‘90s, most recent efforts to introduce a ballot initiative have fallen well short. In 2016, two citizen-initiated bills were proposed by the pro-marijuana legalization group, NORML, though they moved forward on just one: an initiative to legalize marijuana for medical use. Needing just under 26,000 signatures to make the ballot, the group fell short by roughly 19,000 signatures.

Looking forward to 2020, a group called Wyoming Promise – which needed nearly 39,000 signatures to introduce a proposed Act to Promote Free and Fair Elections – fell well short of what was needed both under the requirements both for the upcoming ballot and the next, gaining just over 20,000 signatures.

Despite the narrowed gap, the group’s chair, Ken Chestek, said organizers have dropped the ballot initiative route for now and are instead looking for bill sponsorship in the coming legislative session.

“We have noted that too,” Chestek wrote in an email. “But we aren’t thinking past the legislative session at the moment. We have sponsors lined up for our proposed legislation and are focusing our energy right now on getting our measure passed in the Legislature.”

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Follow politics reporter Nick Reynolds on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds

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Politics Reporter

Nick Reynolds covers state politics and policy. A native of Central New York, he has spent his career covering governments big and small, and several Congressional campaigns. He graduated from the State University of New York at Brockport in 2015.

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