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Election officials prep for increase in absentee voting in August primary

CHEYENNE – Wyoming will not be making a complete shift to mail-in voting for its August primary, but state election officials, anticipating a jump in absentee voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic, are preparing to ensure voters have a wide range of options to participate in the process.

While states with elections slated for April and May have delayed theirs until later this summer, Wyoming’s primary will continue as scheduled Aug. 18, largely as a result of it falling later in the year.

The primary also will not be held entirely via mail-in voting, according to Will Dinneen, communications and policy director for the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office.

“That won’t be necessary,” Dinneen said Thursday. “We really feel confident that we’ll be able to scale up absentee balloting by mail and still maintain safe, clean, secure polling locations in every single county.”

Instead, Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, whose office is in charge of running the August primary, will be distributing federal funds from the coronavirus relief bill to expand absentee voting and safeguard the in-person polling locations.

Wyoming will receive $3 million through the federal aid package to supplement any needs, such as more envelopes, ballots and postage, that could arise due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve got all the resources necessary to do an election that allows every voter to cast a ballot in the way they choose,” Dinneen said.

The state is unlikely to send out ballots to every registered voter, as the Wyoming Democratic Party did for its presidential caucus this year. Instead, residents will still need to request an absentee ballot. Dinneen said the office’s priority is to make Wyomingites aware of their multitude of options.

“I think it’s better than an all-mail election, because people will still have that flexibility of choice,” Dinneen added.

Buchanan’s office has been working closely with the state’s 23 county clerks in recent weeks to address any of their needs. In an interview Thursday, Laramie County Clerk Debra Lee said her office was discussing ways to fund the manpower necessary to process any potential uptick in absentee voting.

“We’ve been brainstorming on how to do that, including using county staff and working overtime, perhaps even on a weekend,” Lee said. “We’re prepared to do whatever needs to be done to make this election as efficient as possible.”

Lee was unsure if the $3 million in federal funding could go to overtime pay for county employees. Regardless, she said she was relieved to hear of the additional funds.

“We definitely will need it,” Lee said.

Another potential use of the funding could be for drop boxes that allow voters to easily submit their absentee ballots in the weeks leading up to the primary, Lee said.

Meanwhile, the state Legislature has no plans to change any statutes related to the election process during any potential special session. Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, who chairs the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee, said the statutes already give Buchanan and his office the flexibility they need.

“We have absentee voting now, so it would just be a matter of making sure the public knows that option exists,” Landen said.

Landen said he expects the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee will hear an update from the Secretary of State’s office during its first interim meeting June 10 and 11.

Changes could also be implemented for the general election Nov. 3, but officials agreed it was too early to tell what kind of adjustments, if any, will be needed for that.

“We’re just buckling our seat belts, because we’re ready for whatever happens,” Lee said.