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Crossover voting bill goes to governor’s desk

If enacted, law would prohibit voters from changing their party affiliation during the 96 days leading up to the primary election.

Voters cast ballots in Vista West on Tuesday Nov. 3, 2020. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

Maggie Mullen, WyoFile

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — For lawmakers aspiring to limit so-called crossover voting by restricting how and when Wyoming voters may affiliate with a political party, the ninth time may be the charm. 

House Bill 103 – Political party affiliation declaration and changes is headed to the governor’s desk after it cleared both chambers. That is further than any of the other eight legislative attempts have gotten. 

Its journey has been bumpy. Like two other anti-crossover voting bills brought this session, the HB 103 originally failed. However, senators applied a rarely used rule to resurrect it

“It’s been probably the most vetted bill this body has ever seen,” Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) said Friday on the Senate floor. “It’s been shot at. It’s been nuclear-bombed. It’s been fumigated. It’s been thrown in the garbage can. It’s been beaten, dragged, you name it.” 

Biteman has led the Wyoming Republican Party’s charge to put a stop to registered Democrats, minor party and unaffiliated voters from changing their party affiliation in order to participate in the primary election as Republicans. House Bill 103 doesn’t rule that possibility out entirely. Instead it creates a 96-day period ahead of the primary election, forcing voters to affiliate with a party before the nomination period opens for candidates. 

Opponents of the bill argue it inappropriately prioritizes party allegiance and purity over the competition of ideas and individual candidates. But that’s indeed the intent, according to bill supporters like Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne). 

“I’m going to choose a party that is more in alignment with my values,” Hutchings told lawmakers. “I could care less who’s going to run, that shouldn’t even be in my mind [when choosing a party].”

The Senate voted 19-11 with one excused to pass the bill, but not before unease emerged regarding unintended consequences. Some worried the legislation will inadvertently deny new voters the ability to register to vote. Sens. Bill Landen (R-Casper) and Charles Scott (R-Casper) brought amendments to patch that hole, but neither stuck. 

“Our job is to put the best product out that goes in those green books behind me. We’re not doing that on this one,” Landen said. 

The bill has now landed on the desk of the official whose 2018 win set off all the commotion. When Gordon secured the Republican nomination in the governor’s race, his opponents said he only beat them due to the support of crossover Democrats. Those claims were shown to be statistically unfounded but have endured nonetheless. 

Gordon “will give the bill careful consideration, just as he does with all bills that reach his desk,” Michael Pearlman, the governor’s spokesperson, told WyoFile. 

Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) during the 2023 general session of the 67th Wyoming Legislature. (Megan Lee Johnson/WyoFile)

‘Qualified’ elector

Landen brought what he thought would be a quick fix to the bill, he said, after a constituent reached out to him with an inquiry: If someone turned 18 during the blackout period, would they be able to register to vote ahead of the primary election? 

Not being able to answer the question himself, Landen took it to the legal staff at the Legislative Service Office. 

“Come to find out, we do have a little bit of a problem,” Landen told lawmakers. Legal staff suggested changing the word “elector” to “qualified elector” to clear up the potential problem. That change could specify the bill’s intentions to restrict those who are already registered voters. 

That argument was enough to convince the body to adopt Landen’s amendment, but it didn’t stick. The language was struck the next day at the urging of Biteman. 

“It either does nothing or it does something we don’t want it to,” Biteman said, expressing skepticism about LSO’s legal research. Others, like Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) said the secretary of state’s office, “the ultimate arbiter,” told him the added language was not needed. 

The County Clerks’ Association of Wyoming, however, took a more nuanced approach. The association has long avoided taking a stance in opposition or support of the bill “given its intensely political nature,” according to a letter the clerks sent the Senate last week. Instead, the association’s testimony on the bill has focused on its administrability, which the clerks say is doable. 

“It is the opinion of our association that the passage [of the bill], as introduced, would not deny a new registrant,” the letter stated. “However, our association has continuously advocated for clear direction and as such, perhaps clarity that the prohibition on affiliating does not apply to new registrants is in order.” 

Scott brought an amendment proposing that kind of clarity.

“Providing clarity where there’s ambiguity is good practice in law,” Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) said. “I cannot fathom why we would not want to inject certainty into a statutory case of ambiguity by supporting this amendment.”

The amendment failed 16-15. The day before, Sen. John Kolb (R-Rock Springs) had said adding language to the bill would put its future in jeopardy, since that would create an additional hurdle by sending it back to the House for what’s known as concurrence.

“It will not make it through. It will not become a bill in front of the governor,” Kolb said. “I am not going to get overcome by the emotional argument that someone’s trying to take away anyone’s rights.”

A litany of other amendments proposed in the Senate failed to tweak the bill. Rothfuss brought an amendment to allow political parties to opt out. Sens. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) and Cale Case (R-Lander) brought amendments to shorten the blackout period, the idea being that voters should have the ability to know who is running before they affiliate with a party. 

“I find a lot of irony here,” Case said. “We are at a time in our state government where the five elected officials are all of one party. Our Congresspeople are one party and both [legislative chambers] are dominated by one party.” But that dominance was not enough to satisfy the Republican party, Case said. 

The Senate on Friday voted 19-11 to pass the bill on third reading. 

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.