Committee shuts door on closed primaries


By Ramsey Scott

Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE – A Republican’s effort to end party switching before a primary election died in committee after two days of testimony that included demands from local and state party leaders.

The Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee rejected Senate File 32 on a 3-2 vote Tuesday. While the bill did get two yes votes, those votes came without any words of support or encouragement for passage. All five senators said the public comments they received in the lead-up to the vote had been evenly split in favor or against the change.

Sens. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, and Wendy Schuler, R-Evanston, both voted yes, but expressed doubt about the impact and need for the bill. Nethercott said she only would vote to move the bill forward to let the full Senate debate the issue. She also said the bill would have unintended consequences and create new issues many supporters hadn’t considered.

“I think the (Wyoming Republican) party would be surprised (at) the number of true Republicans who don’t support the bill,” Nethercott said. “I think there was a knee-jerk reaction with this recent election to come up with quick solutions that don’t really address the problem.

“I urge great caution. I think it is a bad idea. I do believe it deserves a Senate vote by all my colleagues on the floor, but know my positions and know I urge great caution.”

Sens. Cale Case, R-Lander; Charles Scott, R-Casper; and Bill Landen, R-Casper, voted against the bill.

Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, carried SF 32 to stop what he called “party raiding” against Republicans. He and others claimed there was widespread abuse of the rules by Democrats who switched parties to obstruct the choices of Republicans.

“It needs to be fixed. If this kind of stuff continues – the gaming of the system continues – it’s really going to taint the overall process,” Biteman said. “Hopefully, this year was an outlier. It has always happened – switching and strategic voting has always happened – but it hasn’t been as overt and in your face (as) this year. Hopefully, that will subside.”

SF 32 would have prevented a registered voter from switching their official party affiliation once candidates started to file their nomination applications. That lockout would have extended until after the primary election was over.

Witnesses on Thursday and again Tuesday morning spoke of Democrats and unregistered voters laughing as they changed registration on the day of the primary election last August because their intent was to cause chaos for Republicans.

Many said the crossover was infringing on the rights of Republicans to freely associate, which the First Amendment guarantees.

The First Amendment argument was a popular one for those who were against the bill, as well, as they pointed out the state funds the primary process and everyone has a right to take part in it.

After Tuesday’s committee vote, Biteman said he hoped the issue would be taken up during the interim session.

“I think an interim topic of all options would be ideal (to) try to find a solution that works for everybody,” Biteman said. “(The committee) raised good points about ‘the person, not the party.’ Ultimately, that’s the debate that’s going to have to happen. There’s good arguments on both sides.”

The House is also set to hear a bill from Rep. Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne, that would end party switching before May 1 during a general election cycle.

The issue first was formally voiced the day after last year’s primary by former GOP gubernatorial candidate Foster Friess, who said in an email to party leaders that Democrats and Independents who changed their affiliation to Republican on Election Day caused him to lose to now-Gov. Mark Gordon.

However, a later analysis of voter registration numbers by University of Wyoming pollster Brian Harnisch disputed that claim.

After the election, the Wyoming GOP named crossover voting elimination as its No. 1 priority for this general session.

According to the Secretary of State’s Office, between July 6 and Sept. 20, 12,509 voters switched their party affiliation. Of those voters, the Republicans gained 10,562 new affiliated voters, with 6,057 switching over from the Democratic Party and 4,505 unaffiliated voters opting to register with the GOP. Democrats saw 1,174 voters come their way, with 744 moving from a Republican affiliation.

Friess eventually lost to Gordon by 9,109 votes. That means most voters who changed their affiliation to Republican would have needed to vote for Gordon, instead of the other five candidates on the ballot, to have swung the election away from Friess.