County Voter Conundrum

By on November 2, 2016

Why county residents can’t vote on town issues… and likely will never be able to.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Every year around this time a rising complaint mounts among voters. It is a beef that comes from county residents who feel frustrated they are not allowed to vote on town matters, like candidates for mayor and town council, or other issues pertaining to town stuff that may have direct or indirect bearing on them.

How the town of Jackson is run matters to a great many voters who work in town, own property or businesses in town, or are otherwise affected by town decisions. In Teton County, the dilemma is more pronounced because the county has essentially only one municipality. Jackson is Jackson Hole and what happens in town doesn’t necessarily stay there.

Over the years, the frustration of not being able to weigh in on a proposed ordinance (and its referendum vote, for example), or the right to choose government leadership whose decisions will have far-reaching implications beyond town borders, has reached the ears of state legislators. State statute would need to be changed. And that has been virtually impossible. Here’s why.

First off, whenever Teton County brings a “Teton County problem” to the state capitol, it’s not exactly met with the red carpet roll out. But, in the case of voter jurisdictions, it is not Teton County alone with a dog in the fight. In fact, none of the three recent bills brought to Cheyenne in an effort to change who can vote where were sponsored by local electeds. They came from Sublette and Lincoln counties.

Challenging the system

The bills highlighted the core issues many of the legislators’ constituents have. One argument is not allowing those who live outside municipal boundaries to vote on town or city tickets is not fair to those with a majority stake, or who own property or businesses, in that municipality.

Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, last month spearheaded an effort on behalf of his constituents by claiming not allowing Sublette County residents to weigh in on Pinedale elections was tantamount to “taxation without representation.”

Teton County clerk Sherry Daigle attended committee meetings in Cheyenne at the last legislative session where she gave her input as a member of the state county clerks association. She said allowing someone to vote in town who didn’t live in town just because they ran a business there would get real messy, real fast.

“How would we administer that?” Daigle asked. “You could have a person who owned a business in the town of Jackson who lives in, say, Rafter J. But what if that person has two businesses? Does he get two votes? What if he lives over the hill in Idaho? Now you are involving another state. I go at it from the standpoint of one man, one vote.”

Occasionally, an argument is made to extend town or city limits a mile or so to allow those living so close to a municipality the right to vote since they are “practically” in town. Last month, proposed legislation came before the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee that would allow residents in unincorporated areas near city or town limits the right to vote in city elections if they are affected by municipal ordinances or rules.

It’s a play on extraterritorial jurisdiction—the same idea that allows town and county law enforcement to make arrests on each other’s turf. But how far to extend the buffer zone? And proving where you live could create an extra headache for the clerk’s office.

“Wyoming also has no residency laws in regards to voter registration. You could live in town one day and in the county the next,” Daigle said. “Personally, look, I get it. But I also see the administrative implications it would bring with it.”  PJH

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