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No pattern yet

Nov 18, 2012 By Steven R. Peck

Districted county commission voting has yielded unpredictable results -- and that's not all bad

There is no question that the conversion of Fremont County Commission elections from all-county "at large" voting to that of a district-based ballot has brought significant change to the process of choosing the county's top elected officials.

But this year's election demonstrated that a predictable pattern of district-based voting has not yet been established.

Since the district format was brought to the voting for state senators and representatives to the Wyoming Legislature, a certain stagnation has been apparent. Not once since that changeover was made in 1990 has an incumbent, elected legislator been defeated. Rarely, in fact, has there even been a challenge. With the notable exception of House District 33, where incumbent Patrick Goggles has survived two spirited general-election contests in a row, our legislative elections have been clockwork demonstrations of preservation of the status quo. For 20 years now, incumbent after incumbent has breezed to re-election. Clearly the indication is that districting has robbed legislative races of much of their spark and competitiveness.

Wouldn't that bode the same for districted county commission elections? Not so far. There have only been two of them so far --- and only one on a normal election calendar after the snafu of the delayed vote two years ago as the courts dawdled over the ruling that finally codified the districts --- but what little trend bucking is possible in such a small window has taken place.

Front and center in the discussion is the election of Stephanie Kessler of Lander over deeply rooted incumbent Republican Pat Hickerson in commission District 4. Far from being overmatched by an incumbent and disadvantaged b the district format as legislative candidates appear to be, Kessler has said she thinks the district setup worked in her favor. She was able to concentrate on a smaller piece of the electorate where voters were familiar with her name and her record (she was a proven vote-getter as a Lander school board member). No need to worry about attracting votes in downtown Riverton or far-flung Dubois -- not her districts.

She ran officially as an Independent rather than as a Democrat, which may have helped as well by removing the knee-jerk stigma many voters in Fremont County attach to the "D-word." Her school board success came on a non-partisan ballot, meaning that both Democrats and Republicans had voted for her before.

But before the district system is hailed as the great refresher of the county election ballot, recall that the old at-large format delivered a success story even bigger than Kessler's. It came in the form of Keja Whiteman, who triumphed in 2006 while facing an array of obstacles that seemed insurmountable. A Democrat running at-large in a two-thirds Republican county. An American Indian, but not enrolled in either of the two Wind River tribes. A woman and a political novice.

Yet she won -- in at-large voting across all 33 voting precincts in the county, actually outpolling Hickerson on the ballot (in '06, the top three finishers countywide were elected). Whiteman since has been re-elected under the district format as well, the only commissioner to have had it both ways.

While we're at it, recall that there will be another new commissioner who also defeated an incumbent --- Larry Allen, who won an undeniably irregular primary over Dennis Christensen and faced no opposition in the general.

Time will be the only teller whether the districted county voting will revert to the pattern modeled by legislative elections or whether commission races can remain more lively providers of real contests. Regardless, the commission that sits for its first meeting in 2013 will have a very different look from the one that convenes for the final time in 2012. There will be two women and two non-Republicans -- both of them elected in ways that confounded conventional wisdom.

It is to be hoped, of course, that a candidate of either party, of either gender, of any age and background still stands a fair chance at being elected in Fremont County, regardless of the election district, simply by virtue of a well-run campaign and a well-reasoned, well-spoken effort centered on the issues of importance to voters.

That happened this year. If that proves possible as time goes by, then "Equality State" will be more than simply a catchy motto.

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