Another primary election is upon us, and voters in Natrona County will soon take to the polls to cast ballots in races ranging from their local councils to Congress to the county coroner. But this is anything but a typical election year.
With COVID-19 cases still rising, not only statewide but across the U.S., going to the polls will look different this year. Plexiglass barriers and face masks will separate voting judges and Election Day volunteers from voters. Voters themselves won't be required to wear masks, but social distancing will be enforced, Natrona County Clerk Tracy Good has said.
It's also likely fewer voters will be present at their physical polling places once Aug. 18 rolls around. Good said the office has received far more absentee ballots this year than is typical. She guessed COVID-19 was a major contributor. By mid-July, Good already had 62% more absentee ballots than the office received in all of the 2018 election.
While the presidential election in November may be the star of this year's show, how things plays out at the local level —both this month and in the general election — will also factor into running trends in the county. In anticipation of the primary, the Star-Tribune analyzed voter and candidate data going back to 2012 to contextualize this year’s local races within the county. Our analysis looked at County Commissioner and Casper City Council primary races and touched on voter turnout, diversity among the bodies, how many candidates have run in the past and what the urban-rural divide has looked like in voting data.
Registered voter turnout in Natrona County exceeded 55% in 2016, but otherwise turnout percentage has hovered in the mid to high 40s. Despite relatively high turnout countywide in 2016, broken down by voting precinct, more precincts had a higher rate of turnout in 2018.
Only seven precincts in the county had higher voter turnout in 2016 than 2018, despite higher turnout overall for the 2016 presidential election.
The explanation? Far more Natrona County residents registered to vote in 2018 than in 2016. Voter registration in 2018 exceeded registration in 2016 by nearly 8,000 voters. Ballots cast exceeded the 2016 figure by roughly 2,000.
When a Ward III Casper City Council seat opened up last summer after Chris Walsh resigned to take a job in Douglas, 13 people rushed to fill his seat. The decision fell to the remaining council members, who after an hourlong interview process ultimately appointed sitting Councilman Steve Cathey.
Council members at the time encouraged the remaining 12 who were not selected to run when the seat was vulnerable — which it is this year. None of those applicants filed to run in the election.
Councilman and former mayor Charlie Powell said at the time the number of people who apply for council vacancies always exceeds the number of people who ultimately run. At least in this example there’s truth to that. Thirteen people applied to be appointed to a vacant seat. Only three people are running for the very same, now-vulnerable seat.
The data does challenge another assertion made at the time: that few people run for local races. But between County Commissioner and City Council races since 2012, only two went uncontested — both in 2018. They were both for non-typical city council seats, in that they were “unexpired” for two-year terms rather than a four-year term.
All other races have been at least somewhat competitive, though the degree varies.
The County Commissioners race has remained largely contested. This year’s race is the sparsest field since at least 2012, with six candidates vying for two vulnerable seats. The prior races all had between eight and 11 candidates.
City Council races are somewhat less competitive but still vary in degree mostly between two and six candidates vying for each seat. Casper’s Ward II is routinely the most contested City Council ward.
The rural-urban divide stands out when analyzing voter trends in the Natrona County.
In 2018, 56% of municipal registered voters in the county turned out to the polls, according to municipal voting district data. Just 42% of rural voters did.
In 2016, the difference was less stark but still there. Average turnout in municipal districts was about 45%. It was about 42% in rural districts.
This doesn’t mean all urban districts show up in higher proportions than all rural districts. But in 2018, only three rural precincts had enough turnout to be in the top half of precincts. In 2016, eight rural precincts were in the top half for turnout.
Precincts in the city of Casper also tend to have higher turnout than county precincts, but its voters aren't the only ones turning out in higher proportions. Evansville's voting precinct, 4-1, had the highest registered voter turnout in the entire county in 2018. In 2016, that precinct just missed the top 10.
The difference between rural and municipal issues comes into play most significantly with the Natrona County Commissioners, who are elected from anywhere in the county, but who make decisions that can affect county residents more than those in municipalities with their own councils. The County Commissioner race this year is equally split between county and municipal residents. Three candidates live in Casper: Brook Kaufman, Vickery Fales Hall and Worth Christie, and three live in the county: Jerry Cook, Dave North and Kevin Christopherson.
At a recent forum hosted by the county library, Cook, in answering a question about serving residents outside of the county’s urban center, said rural voters feel neglected by local officials.
Data does suggest rural voters are limited in at least one capacity. It’s difficult to get a true sense of participation between the groups because of how voting districts are drawn, both at the local and state level. At the county level, voting precincts sometimes include municipal and county residents. Five precincts in Natrona County combine rural and municipal voters. Still, the vast majority isolate municipal and rural residents, so a rough picture locally can be seen.
The overlap is also represented in how state legislative districts — many of which intersect both county and municipal boundaries — are drawn. In those cases, the distinction is more difficult, as the areas are larger and a greater number of those intersections exist.
The Star-Tribune's analysis found that of the 57 candidates who have vied for a City Council seat since 2012, 14 have been women, or just under 25%.
Broken down by ward, of the 20 candidates who have sought seats in Ward 1 since 2012, eight have been women. In Ward 2, five of 22 candidates have been women, and in Ward 3, one of 15 candidates has been a woman.
The County Commissioners race has also been sparse with female candidates since at least 2012. Of the 45 candidates who have run in that time frame, nine — or 20% — were women. No female candidate has won a commissioner seat since at least 2012.
Brook Kaufman, who is currently a commissioner, was appointed to her seat in February 2019. Only one woman currently sits on Casper City Council as well. Vice Mayor Khrystyn Lutz won her seat in 2018 on a rare two-female candidate ticket.
The trend exists in the state Legislature, too, where there are five times more male lawmakers than female, despite women making up 49% of the state’s population. And in the U.S. Congress, women make up only 23.7% of seats.
Vickery Fales Hall, a current candidate for County Commissioner, said in a recent interview that the lack of female representation in Natrona County government is one of the reasons she chose to run for office.
She said as a woman and as a mother, she’d like a greater diversity of voices on the County Board, adding that without those different voices, fewer diverse interests will be considered.