The Fremont County Attorney’s Office said Tuesday it determined local poll workers did not violate state elections law during last year’s elections, despite concerns raised by the Wyoming Democratic Party.
The investigation came after a request earlier this month by state Democrats to examine issues experienced by tribal members on the Wind River Indian Reservation during the 2018 general election.
According to a letter from Fremont County Attorney Patrick LeBrun to Wyoming Democratic Party Chairman, Joe Barbuto, earlier this week, the investigation – prompted by two specific incidents at the polls during last year’s elections there – yielded no evidence that local election officials misapplied state law.
In his initial May 15 letter, Barbuto wrote those incidents – which included confusion over the proper identification required to vote and individuals being asked to read an oath aloud, prompting concerns of an illicit literacy test – may have constituted certain violations of state elections law. In the letter, he offered to provide several written accounts of those incidents from eyewitnesses, which Barbuto said were written “shortly after” the incidents had occurred in late October.
Nobody was blocked from voting in either of those incidents, according to a statement last week from Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese.
“In fact, my deputies made extraordinary efforts to make sure that all eligible persons desiring to register and vote were allowed to do so,” Freese wrote.
The investigation’s primary sources included written statements provided by the state Democratic Party, the Fremont County clerk and a number of personal interviews, including election workers, civilian poll watchers and local party officials, among others, LeBrun told the Star-Tribune on Tuesday.
The probe shows poll workers did the right thing, Secretary of State Ed Buchanan said in a statement.
“It is clear from the results of the investigation that the Fremont County Clerk’s office performed its duties in accordance with the law and, in fact, went above and beyond to assist voters,” Buchanan said in a statement.
The results of LeBrun’s investigation come several months after the state Democratic Party made its earliest concerns with voting on the reservation known in October, when a Democratic organizer on the reservation said she and other activists faced difficulties when trying to vote early in Fremont County.
The timing of the incidents was especially concerning to Democrats, coinciding with voting difficulties that had been reported on Indian reservations around the country. In Ethete, for example, some at the polls were asked to read an election oath aloud to an election judge, which tribal members said constituted a literacy test – which would have been a violation of state law.
While the process was not in line with training, LeBrun wrote, the reading of the oath was not being used as a literacy test, but instead as a means to ensure those individuals understood whether or not they were actually eligible to vote. He added that if voters were unable to read the oath, the oath would be read to them.
This was done, LeBrun explained, because the head judge in Ethete once mistakenly registered a voter whom she later learned was a convicted felon – and was therefore barred from voting. To ensure that anyone who registered to vote understood the law, the clerk asked them to read the oath aloud, or be read the oath so they understood those rules. None of those asked to do so complained to the clerk about the process, LeBrun wrote.
That explanation, the Wyoming Democrats said in a statement on Tuesday, was not sufficient.
“A voting process that exists because of the personal feelings of one election judge, outside of the official training provided, is an effective form of voter suppression even if the victims of that process do not bring complaints to those in power,” the statement read. “We are considering our next steps.”
Meanwhile in Lander, two women attempting to register to vote early had difficulties with an employee at the clerk’s office, leading to an escalation of the situation that a tribal organizer, Lynette Grey Bull, characterized to the Star-Tribune at the time as “racist behavior.”
LeBrun, however, found this was due not to willful attempts to suppress the vote, but a misunderstanding of the requirements in place under the federal Help America Vote Act, which regulates local election officers. While the women looking to register attempted to use their tribal identification cards and their social security numbers, federal law requires that those with a driver’s license – which one of the woman had – use that number to register.
If someone couldn’t find their driver’s license, or did not have a physical copy in their possession, the county clerk could look it up through a database managed by the Wyoming Department of Motor Vehicles —— though that process can be time consuming. This is how one of the women named in the initial request was eventually registered.
Freese noted Tuesday that if voters have a driver’s license, they must give that number to the registrar when attempting to register to vote. If a prospective voter does not have a driver’s license, other forms of I.D. – as approved by the Secretary of State’s office — can then be accepted.
An improved list of those requirements was posted to the Fremont County Clerk’s Office’s website last week.
“Everybody has the same act they have to follow, which is hooking your system up to that of a state agency to make sure the person standing in front of you is checked somehow, to make sure they’re eligible to vote,” Freese said. “Then, you I.D. them to make sure that person is who they say they are. It’s sort of a two-pronged approach.”
The Fremont County Attorney’s Office came to a similar understanding.
“After reviewing this case, it is clear the group was upset,” LeBrun wrote. “It is apparent, however, that it stemmed, to great extent, from a misunderstanding of the law and genuine belief, although incorrect, that they should have been allowed to register purely through use of their tribal identification.”
Freese – a lifelong Fremont County resident who was born on the Reservation – said the issues themselves could be sourced to one significant problem: miscommunication.
In the future, the Wyoming Legislature’s Subcommittee on Tribal Relations will be engaging with representatives from the reservation to improve protocols around I.D. requirements, and Freese said she will continue to take part in efforts to register voters locally as well as communicate election law — both to voters and the county’s more than 300 election judges.
“There are federal laws we have to follow, and it’s been very confusing,” Freese said. “We’ve tried everything we can think of to make sure it’s more easily understood.”