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By Leo Wolfson, State Politics Reporter
Gov. Mark Gordon allowed one of the preeminent election bills of the 2023 Legislature to pass into law on Thursday night. The bill had been sitting on his desk for a few days before he announced he would not sign it, thus allowing the bill to pass into law.
House Bill 103 moves the deadline to change party affiliation from primary election day to the day before candidates can file for political office in Wyoming. The idea behind this bill is to prevent voters from changing their party affiliation to influence the primary election of a different party.
Gordon said in a Thursday night press release he had hoped to receive legislation that would strengthen the closed primary system because he believes people should only vote in the primary of their respective party, a point he also made during his State of the State Address in 2022.
He expressed skepticism that the bill will prevent crossover voting in the future, saying the bill’s effects may be “more academic than real” due to the fact that nearly 93% of Wyoming voters are Republican.
Gordon also said “no matter what” the bill will cause “some confusion” among voters in the next primary.
“Because the bill adds uncertainty to the voting process, I have determined not to sign HB 0103, Gordon said.
He said he secured a commitment from bill sponsor Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, to clarify ambiguity in the bill before the 2024 primary election that he believes has “the potential to deny participation in a major party primary election in a few limited circumstances.” Gordon also said Haroldson assured him there was no intent to deny participation.
“I urge voters to learn about these changes so that they may vote for their desired major party ballot in 2024,” he said.
In a video posted on Facebook Wednesday night, Haroldson said Gordon had questions about the constitutionality of the bill, regarding how it will affect new voters. Chiefly, Haroldson said Gordon has concerns the bill will prevent new voters from registering to vote. Haroldson has said multiple times through the session that new voters will not be affected in any way by the bill.
“We’re fighting that battle right now, making sure that misconception isn’t a part of the decision-making process,” Haroldson said.
Sheridan lobbyist Gail Symons testified against HB 103 throughout the session but offered amendments to the bill she thought made it palatable and constitutional. These amendments were not taken up.
Crossover voting has been a major issue for many conservatives in Wyoming for the last few years. Bills have been brought attempting to address the matter for the last five legislative sessions in a row.
Gordon would have likely faced massive pushback if he vetoed the bill and an almost certain attempt to override his veto. The bill passed with an overwhelming majority in the House and a 19-11 vote in the Senate.
Stopping crossover voting was one of the biggest campaign promises of Secretary of State Chuck Gray in 2020.
“Today marks a pivotal moment for election integrity in Wyoming,” Gray said in a Thursday night press release. “Ending crossover voting to protect the integrity of the election process has been our office’s number one priority this session and we worked diligently on its passage. I couldn’t be more excited by its becoming law today and will ensure its proper implementation.”
New Voter Impacts
Symons believes as currently written, the bill doesn’t prevent new voters from registering after the mid-May candidate filing period opens, but does prevent them from declaring a party affiliation.
Although she doesn’t believe this was done purposely, she believes the bill supporters were so concerned about Democrats and Independent voters switching their party affiliation to vote in Republican primaries that bill proponents did not consider what might happen to new voters.
“They’ve taken away the right, the ability of the new voter to declare party affiliation,” she said.
As written, it is somewhat ambiguous how the legislation would change the law in regards to new voters, as they are not mentioned or guaranteed any special registration privileges.
Haroldson said the Wyoming County Clerks Association (WCCA) supports the bill. It is the county clerks who are in charge of deciding which voters can register and how.
Mary Lankford, representative for the WCCA, said although her organization does not take a political position on HB 103, it does find the legislation to be constitutional.
She said the clerks plan to let new voters register and declare a party affiliation during the lockout period.
Most of Wyoming’s competitive races are determined at the primary election stage. There are usually only a few nonpartisan measures unaffiliated voters can vote on in the primary, and in some scenarios nothing at all.
For example, in Sublette County, where there are no nonpartisan primary county elections, a rural county resident would be shut out from participating in the primary elections altogether if they did not declare a party affiliation before the deadline.
Another important aspect of the bill is that already-registered voters will not be allowed to unregister or change their party affiliation after the candidate filing period opens.
Symons expressed concern that this will lead voters who move away from Wyoming being unable to register and vote in another state because they cannot drop their Wyoming registration.
“They can’t tell you you’re not allowed to cancel your registration,” she said.
Haroldson implored his voters to tell the governor to not veto the bill. A member of the Sheridan County Republican Party also sent out an email Thursday telling their fellow members to “call & email the Governor’s office.”
“Tomorrow (Thursday) is a time where we just make his phone and his email account very knowledgeable about our hearts and thoughts about this bill,” Haroldson said.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, brought two different amendments that, if passed, would have allowed political parties to opt out of the lockout period.
Both of these amendments were defeated. Rothfuss finds the bill “heavily unconstitutional” and believes it restricts the right to freedom of association by restricting voters to register with certain political parties. He said he hopes the law is challenged in court.
Many have accused Gordon of benefiting from crossover voting in his 2018 Republican primary election, as some see him as a more moderate Republican that would be a preferable candidate for Democrats and Independent voters.
A formal study performed by the Secretary of State’s office found there was not enough crossover voting to have changed the result of this election, but it did occur.
There was likely even more crossover voting in the 2022 primary election, mostly spurred by the contentious race between former U.S. congresswoman Liz Cheney and U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman.
Although crossover voting did occur in this election, it did not come close to impacting the final result of the race Hageman won by 38%.
Administrative Hurdles What Lankford believes many supporters of the bill have overlooked is how significant of a change the legislation will be for the public and election staff.
She pointed out that many voters aren’t particularly engaged with politics, and will likely learn for the first time they can’t vote when they attempt to register.
“And they’re going to take it out on the county clerks and election judges,” she said.
Lankford also said many people don’t realize how many unaffiliated voters exist in the state. As of June 1, 2022, there were 35,220 registered unaffiliated voters in Wyoming. Between that date and Sept. 1, that number dropped by more than 8,000.
Lankford said an informational campaign will likely be necessary to warn voters about the new deadline, which would be around three months earlier than the previous deadline, which coincided with voting on primary election day. She said the change would also involve extensive training and procedural changes for the clerks.
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