Gov. Mark Gordon let a crossover-voting ban go into effect without his signature earlier this year because he was worried the bill’s ambiguity could deny participation to eligible voters. An agreement to work on clarifying the bill before the 2024 election dissuaded Gordon from a veto, but lawmakers have yet to settle on a solution.
Instead, they opted Thursday to delay a decision after the secretary of state questioned whether a legislative fix was necessary..
The Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee met in Douglas to consider several election-related measures. That included a modification to address the governor’s concerns about the crossover-voting ban, which restricts voters from affiliating with a party during the 96 days immediately preceding the primary election.
Supporters of the ban said it was needed to stop registered Democrats, minor party and unaffiliated voters from changing their party affiliation in order to participate in the primary election as Republicans, the dominant political party in Wyoming. After several years of stalled legislative attempts, the ban became law in March.
Critics of the ban’s existing language believe it restricts new voters — such as an 18-year-old or someone with restored voting rights — from registering to vote during the blackout period.
But the state’s top election administrator, Secretary of State Chuck Gray, told lawmakers on Thursday there wasn’t a problem.
“In conjunction with the original intent of the legislation, and based on our interpretation of the statute, I want to be clear that the Secretary of State’s office and the county clerks’ implementation and preparation would not prevent new registrants from registering and affiliating with a political party during the time period between the first day of candidate filing and the date of the primary election,” Gray said.
Legislation would not be necessary, Gray said, because his office will be providing formal guidance to the clerks that the ban does not apply to new registrants.
The draft modification before the committee would make an explicit exception during the blackout period for someone who has not registered to vote in Wyoming during the year prior. But that version presented two problems for Gray.
“First, the language could be read to completely obliterate the cancellation requirement by reinstating the cancellation loophole,” he said. In other words, Gray was concerned voters would intentionally cancel their registration and reregister to switch parties, making crossover voting possible.
Second, Gray said the added language would create logistical problems for his office and the county clerks as they implement the original legislation.
In coordination with the county clerks, Gray said his office has already completed the “complex process of writing technical requirements” for the state’s voter registration system “by working with our vendor to ensure the changes can be deployed for the 2024 election cycle.”
The drafted measure, Gray said, would complicate that implementation and add costs.
Nonetheless, Gray brought his own amendments to the bill, which the committee ended up adopting at his request.
Wanting more time to consider the new language, lawmakers carried the bill forward to their October meeting for further discussion.
Changes and lawmaker concerns
Instead of creating an exception for residents who have not been registered for the previous 12 months, the amended language proposed by Gray states that the blackout period is not to prevent new voters from registering or affiliating with a political party. Like the original measure before the committee, the new version may incur costs and would need to be implemented ahead of the 2024 election.
“Nothing in this subsection shall prohibit an elector who is not registered to vote in Wyoming after the first day on which an application for nomination may be filed under W.S. 22-5-209 from registering and declaring a party affiliation before the next primary,” it now reads.
“Qualified” was also added ahead of “elector” in the bill, which mirrored language Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper) brought as an amendment during the session when concerns about unintended consequences first arose. The Senate initially adopted the language, but it didn’t stick.
At Thursday’s meeting, Landen said it was the right thing for the committee to move the bill forward. But he said he was reluctant given the mix of testimony the committee heard from officials and the public.
“I was told earlier in the day that the secretary would prefer not to do anything to the statute,” Landen said.
“[There’s] a lot of noise out there that this group shouldn’t do anything with the law that was passed. And so I’m trying to just try to digest all of that,” he added.
Ahead of the meeting, the Wyoming Republican Party had emailed its members, imploring them to attend the meeting and oppose the bill.
Rep. Mike Yin (D-Jackson) also expressed an interest in leaving the law as is to see if the bill’s possible unconstitutionality will be taken up by the judicial branch.
“I’m fine with doing nothing at all and not using the time in the next meeting because I frankly would rather see what [legal] a challenge would look like,” Yin said.
The committee will next meet in Cheyenne on Oct. 26 and 27.