By Maggie Mullen
WyoFile.com 

Wyoming lawmakers skip crossover-voting ban fix, leave loophole intact

 

October 26, 2023



A legislative committee declined to change ambiguous language in the new law. Meanwhile, registered voters hoping to keep their options open in 2024 have a clear, albeit inconvenient, path forward.

As long as voters are willing to jump through some hoops, the crossover-voting ban won’t block all attempts to change party affiliation ahead of the 2024 election.

That’s according to an example laid out in a recent directive Secretary of State Chuck Gray provided to county clerks, which came to light during legislative conversations about how the new crossover-voting ban could inadvertently disenfranchise new voters. Ultimately, lawmakers on Thursday rejected a draft bill to fix ambiguous language in the law, leaving a promise to the governor unfulfilled — in addition to an intact loophole for crossover voters.

It took several years to get the ban to the governor’s desk, which supporters said was necessary to stop registered Democrats, minor party and unaffiliated voters from changing their party affiliation in order to participate in the primary election as Republicans. Conservatives argued that Democrats voting in GOP primaries resulted in politicians who weren’t reflective of the party’s wishes. But backers of the practice said it produced more public electoral participation in a state where Republicans dominate nearly all aspects of state government.

The version that ultimately passed both chambers, which came after a large number of Democrats crossed over to vote for then-U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney in 2022, created a 96-day blackout period ahead of the primary election, effectively forcing voters to choose a party before choosing a candidate.

Gov. Mark Gordon, alongside other Republicans, raised concerns that the blackout period could inadvertently restrict new voters — such as an 18-year-old or someone with restored voting rights — from registering to vote altogether. However, Gordon let the bill become law without his signature in March after he said he was reassured by the bill’s sponsor and others that they would “work on clarifying the legal ambiguity before the next primary election.”

To do just that, the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee met several times in the legislative off-season, also known as the interim. The culmination of that work came to a halt on Thursday when the committee voted 7-6 with one excused against a bill draft with clarifying language.

After leading the charge to reject the bill, Gray reassured lawmakers that his recent directive got the job done.

“I think it is clear in the statute,” Gray told the committee. “I think it becomes further clearer when you read [Wyoming’s election code] in its entirety. And just to clear it up further, we issued the directive in line with our discussion with you in August and in line with our discussions with the governor going back to our 11th hour meeting the day he needed to make the decision.”

Sent to the clerks on Oct. 24, Gray’s directive provides instructions for enforcing the crossover-voting ban. It also makes clear that the new law does not completely restrict registered voters from changing their party affiliation — what supporters of the ban set out to accomplish.

Last week’s meeting was the final opportunity for the joint committee to throw its support behind legislation before the next election. Unless an individual lawmaker offers a version of the bill that succeeds in February’s budget session both the ban’s ambiguity and loophole are likely to stay on the books when voters head to the ballot box in 2024.

Directive

Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland), a corporations committee member, was lead sponsor of the crossover-voting ban during the 2023 legislative session. He told the committee last week he’d given his word to revise the law’s language, but the draft bill was not the solution.

“I will help fix that. I will help be a part of that. But I don’t believe this does that,” he said.

Instead, Haroldson said, the state could rely on Gray’s directive, at least until the 2025 general session when lawmakers have more time and flexibility. He also harkened back to some of the original discussion about the bill’s language, which wrestled with using “elector” versus “qualified elector.” Haroldson said he’d prefer to address that language throughout the entire election code and not the ban alone.

“This is just fixing a very small sliver of a much larger picture,” Haroldson said. Haroldson did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment.

As it stands, the crossover-voting ban would not restrict voters who canceled their registration ahead of the cutoff date from re-registering and affiliating with a party different than the one they had affiliated with previously.

Still, the ban is a “huge improvement,” Gray told WyoFile in an email, “from where Wyoming was before I took office, when voters were allowed to raid other party’s primary up until the day of the election.

“Wyoming now has one of the strongest primaries in the nation. I look forward to continuing to work with the Wyoming Legislature on strengthening the integrity and security of Wyoming’s elections.”

To clarify to clerks how to apply the ban, Gray’s office provided six scenarios within the directive. The fifth, in particular, describes how registered voters are still legally permitted to cancel their registration ahead of the blackout period, thereby making it possible to re-register and affiliate with a political party after the cutoff date.

“Joni is a registered Republican but she cancels her voter registration on May 2nd. Joni re-registers to vote on August 1st as a Democrat. Joni shall be allowed to register as a Democrat and vote as a Democrat in the primary election,” the directive states.

During the committee meeting, Wyoming GOP Executive Director Kathy Russell advocated against making any revisions to the ban. Doing so, she said, would create the “option to go around the statute that was passed last year.”

Sen. Eric Barlow (R-Gillette) told Russell that it was Gray’s directive that suggested a loophole or “option to go around” already exists in statute.

“I just throw that out there because I want you as a representative of your organization to be understanding about the way current statute is going to be interpreted based on what the Secretary of State has just released,” Barlow said.

Fear and paranoia

Others at the meeting objected to the directive altogether as a means of interpreting laws.

“My concern here is that I don’t believe that it is the secretary of state’s responsibility to interpret law,” said Gail Symons of Civics 307, a nonpartisan blog dedicated to educating the public on state government.

“I think it is the Legislature’s responsibility to write laws that are so clear that it doesn’t require executive branch clarification.”

Chairman Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), who supported the proposed revisions, said the law is where voters will go looking for guidance.

“My constituents don’t go and read secretary of state directives. I’m sorry, they don’t,” Case said.

Case had opposed the ban earlier this year and pushed back on what he called “paranoia” that the committee was aiming to undo the ban altogether.

“I disagree with the original bill … I think people should be able to change parties all the way,” Case said. “But … we’re not messing with that. We’re just dealing with a situation where there’s a brand new person who needs to vote in Wyoming and they don’t match up with the timeline we previously established.”

Meanwhile Sen. Brian Boner (R-Douglas) said it was important the committee acknowledge the ban’s controversial history.

“I’ve sat and learned some very creative ways for a bill to die watching the various iterations of [a crossover-voting ban] fail throughout the years,” Boner said. “So I think there’s a general lack of trust — not making a call on any one legislator or secretary of state or whatever. But there’s a general lack of trust out there because this is still very fresh in people’s minds.”

The governor’s office declined to comment.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people,

places and policy.

This story was posted on October 31, 2023.

 
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