Murray backs bills for election 'confidence'

Sep 26, 2017 By Daniel Bendtsen, Staff Writer

Two bills backed by Wyoming Secretary of State Ed Murray would significantly change how voter fraud and other election violations are handled.

The legislation could be considered during the 2018 legislative session.

Fraud to misdemeanor

One bill would reduce first-time voter fraud to a misdemeanor while also making it easier for the crime to be prosecuted.

That legislation is especially significant for Fremont County, where prosecutors in 2016 took the unprecedented step of charging two residents with felonious "false voting."

Both cases ended in misdemeanor settlements, but one defendant -- Dubois resident Harley Wells -- filed a lawsuit against the county in August, saying the prosecution violated her civil rights.

Under current state statute, to be convicted of false voting, a person must vote "with the

knowledge of not being a qualified elector."

Wells had been ineligible to vote because of a felony record; however, she said that she believed she was eligible to vote and had received conflicting information about whether her civil rights were restored after her honorable discharge from parole.

"I'm not sure we would have gotten a felony conviction," prosecutor Marcia Bean said at the time a plea deal was made.

The elimination of the "with the knowledge" language from state statute will make it easier for prosecutors to secure convictions of false voting.

However, the bill being advanced by the Joint Corporations, Elections & Political Subdivisions Interim Committee would also reduce the penalty for first-time voter fraud from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Second and subsequent convictions for false voting would still be felonies.

The bill also clarifies how instances of voter fraud should be investigated.

The new language indicates that sheriff's offices should investigate issues "at the request of a county clerk." If the "allegation has merit," investigators should then turn the matter over to the local district or county prosecutor for prosecution.

That language would also alleviate some of the issues addressed in Wells's lawsuit, which alleges the county violated its own standard practices on false voting.

Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese testified on the bill at last week's committee meeting in Lander.

While she said she doesn't have a strong stance on the bill, she said she's "supportive of the fact that they're going to address" some uncertainties.

Murray told The Ranger last week that, with increasing attention to voter fraud and related laws across the U.S., he believes the new legislation will help eliminate a "lack of certainty" over election issues.

"I'm going to be focusing on being able to demonstrate that we have fair elections run with integrity without any manipulation or any type of fraud, hacking or nefarious activities," he said. "The enforcement of that has not been uniform ... I want to be very, very tough on fraud and (ensure) any cases that do occur are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

Murray said he believes the state is devoid of significant voter fraud, but he understands that recent pressure by President Donald Trump's administration means "every state in the nation is being called upon to demonstrate that their states can deliver fair elections with integrity."

Campaign finance

Other legislation the committee proposed would change the penalties for violations by political candidates.

Every candidate in Wyoming is required to file campaign disclosure statements detailing their contributions.

Current law advises that candidate who do not file will be barred from running for state or local office for five years. But Freese said, "I'm still not sure you constitutionally could have done that."

The new bill would eliminate the language while providing substantial fines for failing to file a finance report.

Freese has also helped write another bill that would require all write-in candidates to file campaign finance reports as well.

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