CASPER, Wyo. — The grass-roots effort to repeal changes to the state schools chief's duties and powers has cleared its second hurdle.
The Wyoming Constitution Party scrambled to vindicate state Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill on Tuesday by submitting petitions for a referendum that could potentially go on the 2014 general election ballot.
Party members canvassed all 23 counties in the past 80 days to ask voters to sign a petition to strike down Senate File 104 and restore duties once held by the superintendent. State law requires valid signatures from at least two-thirds of the counties.
The party submitted the names at 4:56 p.m. — four minutes before deadline — to the state Elections Division in Cheyenne. State elections Director Peggy Nighswonger said Hill helped carry boxes of petitions into the elections office.
Organizer Jennifer Young, chairwoman of the Wyoming Constitution Party, wasn't sure how many signatures were collected because of the rush to meet Tuesday's deadline to submit them.
The secretary of state has 60 days to check to see if the party collected 37,606 valid signatures in order to put a referendum on the ballot. Nighswonger said her office expects to have the signatures counted within five days.
The initiative was spearheaded by Young. In less than three months, she organized a team of petitioners around the state who went door to door or held town hall meetings asking Wyomingites to sign the petition. The race to get the signatures began more than two months ago after Young submitted a prerequiste petition with the Elections Division that only called for 100 signatures.
This past winter, the state Legislature stripped Hill of most of her clout and transferred almost all of the superintendent’s duties to an appointed education director with the approval of SF104. Young quickly began to use her political party to fight for Hill. She mobilized Hill’s supporters and Wyoming’s diehard so-called constitutionalists to argue that the Legislature violated the Wyoming Constitution by ousting an elected official without the approval of the state’s constituency.
Nighswonger said a computer will count the number of signatures to ensure there are enough for the Wyoming secretary of state's office to begin verifying signatures.
“If they submit 80,000 signatures, we will hire temps” to verify the signatures, she said. “If they submit 45,000, we will do the task ourselves. It will mean six to eight to 10 people will be checking signatures.”
One petition drive member was concerned the effort fell short. Jen McCarty petitioned in Fremont County. She and the other canvassers had two months to collect 2,100 signatures. It just wasn’t enough time, she said.
“I don’t think we did very well,” McCarty said. “It was very hard to get out and try to collect all the petitions because of the short amount of time. It’s very difficult. You can’t leave a petition. It has to be in the petitioner’s hands. You have to contact every person the best you can. There’s so many rules and regulations.”
Dan Garnett and his wife each spent 35 hours canvassing. The couple and two other signature-gatherers were responsible for Washakie County. Garnett said he missed his goal by 195 signatures. Every signature he garnered fulfilled the election board’s requirements, he said, but he wasn’t sure about the signatures collected by the others.
Kerry and Clara Powers, along with other canvassers in Platte County, collected between 700 and 800 signatures.
The husband-and-wife team has defended Hill’s cause since lawmakers introduced SF104 in January. The Powers are also plaintiffs in a lawsuit with Hill that seeks to overturn the legislation also known as the “Hill bill.”
The case will be heard in the Wyoming Supreme Court sometime this year. Gov. Matt Mead’s office has a July 5 deadline to file a brief in the case.
Meanwhile, Hill’s name will likely be on the 2014 Republican primary ballot regardless of whether the referendum goes through. She has announced that she will run for governor next year.
Even Hill's potential opponents have come out in support of her. Taylor Haynes, a write-in candidate who grabbed nearly 14,000 votes for governor in 2010, has been speaking with Hill in the past weeks to support the repeal of SF104.
“This is important because the constitution was circumvented by the Legislature,” he said. “Voters should have the right to vote on a change of this nature.”