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Special election ahead for District 2 voters
During a meeting Thursday in Lander, Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese, with canvassing board member Darlene Vaughan, explained an error that occurred in the primary election that led to a decision for a special election in the commission District 2 race. Photo by Martin Reed

Special election ahead for District 2 voters

Aug 24, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Registered Republican voters in Fremont County Commission's District 2 will be able to participate in the special mail-ballot election to determine the party's nominee after an error occurred in Tuesday's primary.

GOP voters registered in the north district as of the primary will determine the winner in the run-off between incumbent Dennis Christensen and second-place challenger Larry Allen.

Fremont County Clerk Julie Freese's office will mail roughly 3,500 ballots Monday with the election happening Sept. 11.

On Thursday, the Fremont County Canvassing Board, consisting of Freese, Republican Party member Darlene Vaughan and Democrat Sally Rowe, voted unanimously to have the special election after determining a "material error" happened in the primary.

The District 2 contest in the 18-1 Big Bend precinct had 30 ballots given out to voters who should not have voted in the race.

Unofficial primary results put Christensen on top with 541 votes compared to Allen's 521. Challengers Tim Salazar received 481 votes while Richard Denke earned 147 in the race, according to initial results.

Using state statutes governing elections and advice from Fremont County Attorney Brian Varn, the canvassing board decided the top two candidates, who were separated by a 20-vote margin, should be in the special election.

Even by removing 30 votes from Christensen, the results still place the third- and fourth-place candidates as "clear losers" in the race, with Salazar 40 votes behind Allen, Freese said.

"When you take those 30 votes away from any of the candidates, it didn't change who the top two were," she said. "That's why I voted the way I did."

The outcome of the board's decision means Christensen and Allen will face off one more time to determine who will earn the Republican Party's nomination for the District 2 seat in the Nov. 6 general election.

"I'm going to Dubois to try to recruit the vote," Allen said Friday. "I'm going to hit the district pretty hard and convince them I'm the guy for them, and if indeed they want the change, I will provide the change. I will be their voice on the commission."

Allen said he wants to provide a choice to voters who picked Salazar or Denke.

"Unfortunately for Tim Salazar and Richard Denke, they tried hard too, and I hope that I can represent them, but I feel bad for them that they didn't get a chance to campaign again," he said. "But I do understand why they didn't. I understand the canvassing board decision."

Christensen said Friday that he agreed with the election moving forward with the top two candidates.

"There wasn't that much discrepancy between first and third that that would be a challenge, but there was between first and second," he said.

The incumbent pointed to the complications associated with the commission districts created through federal litigation to correct a Voting Rights Act violation.

"It's unfortunate the lines are that fuzzy, that we put that much pressure on the judges to say, 'Where do you live in this district?'" Christensen said.

Freese said the error happened in a precinct split by two commission districts with two sets of ballots.

"My understanding is they only thought they had one set of ballots, and the other set was not on the table," she said.

Freese said she remains confident the 30 incorrect ballots given out were the only error in the entire county election Tuesday.

"I am very confident this is the only material error of this magnitude," she said.

Salazar questioned the canvassing board's decision to remove him as a candidate.

"The canvassing board made an error yesterday on a number of fronts, first of all from a public policy standpoint to arbitrarily remove candidates from a special election ballot when the top three candidates were within 60 votes of each other," he said. "It does not instill confidence in the electoral process."

He used the example of Dubois voters losing their voice in the election.

"Yesterday half of the voters of the town of Dubois who voted for me were disenfranchised because the candidate who they voted for will not be on the special ballot," he said. "I don't know how that instills confidence in the votes in the election process when that occurs."

Considering the error in the election, the 60-vote difference between first and third is not great enough to determine a clear-cut winner in the primary, Salazar said.

"Clearly there is, in my opinion, reasonable room for doubt by voters under this set of circumstances," he said. "I would think the canvassing board would want to promote the integrity of the electoral process, and I believe they did not do that yesterday."

Salazar also pointed to the idea of fairness encompassed in the federal ruling that created the commission districts in Fremont County.

"The real losers yesterday, because of the canvassing board's decision, were not the candidates taken off the ballot," Salazar said. "It was the voters in not allowing them to vote for the candidate of their choice."

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