Officials disagree on party switching

By Ramsey Scott

Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CHEYENNE — The vastly divergent views on how to close off primary elections to party switchers between the Senate and the House have been on full display this week. 

This session, both the House and Senate passed bills that would alter the ability of voters to switch their party affiliation to participate in their new party's primary election. But after Wednesday, only one of the three bills proposed this session remains active. 

Senate File 160, sponsored by Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, died without a hearing in the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee before Wednesday's deadline for bills to make it out of committees in the second chamber. Biteman's bill would have locked out voters from switching their party affiliation within two weeks of absentee ballots being mailed out.

It was the second attempt for Biteman this session on a bill to close off primary elections. His first attempt, Senate File 32, would have shut out voters who switched parties after May 15, but it died in the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee.

House Corporations chairman Rep. Tyler Lindholm, R-Sundance, said SF 160 wasn't scheduled for a hearing due to the limited amount of time to work bills before Wednesday's deadline. Since there's already a House bill to change the primary system, he said it didn't make sense to work a separate bill that tries to address the same issue. 

That remaining bill is House Bill 106, sponsored by Rep. Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne. It started out as a similar effort to SF 32. When it was first drafted, HB 106 prevented any voter who switched parties after May 1 from participating in a primary election. 

While Blackburn's vision was a substantial change to the current system, HB 106 was amended multiple times during the House's process, an effort led in part by Lindholm. It left the House two weeks ago, amended to allow voters to switch their party affiliation up to 14 days before the primary, and for unaffiliated voters to still have the right to switch at the polls.

Lindholm said the House's approach was to take a narrow view on the issue of voters switching affiliation to vote in the opposing party's primary. The House version of the bill tried to stop party switching on the day of the primary, which Lindholm said was at the heart of the issue. 

But HB 106 was amended again Tuesday night to create a stricter version than even Blackburn's original draft. The Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee put back in the original deadline of May 1, along with requiring a voter to show photo ID to switch affiliation. It would still allow an unaffiliated voter to switch at the polls if they show a photo ID. 

Senate Agriculture chairman Sen. Brian Boner, R-Douglas, said not everyone on the committee was behind the photo ID requirement. But he said the timeline changes were necessary to actually get at the root of the problem that backers have termed "party raiding," referring to the claim Democrats and unaffiliated voters meddle in the Republican primary. 

"We had to have a bill that actually did something. The bill that passed out of the House didn't hardly have any effect at all (on limiting crossover voting)," Boner said. "This is important to a lot of people."

Biteman said while his bill is dead, he was excited HB 106 remained alive and for the changes made by the Senate Agriculture committee. He's optimistic the Senate and the House would be able to find common ground during concurrence on the two versions of the bill. 

"We'll work the House bill and try and get it back for concurrence," Biteman said. 

Lindholm said if HB 106 made its way back to the House for concurrence as it's currently written, he thought it would be met with a no vote. In conversations with senators on the bill, Lindholm said the version the House would most likely support is the version it passed out of the chamber two weeks ago. 

"We've gone in some pretty vast changes and differences (on other bills). Ultimately, if it comes down to it, there's a lot of folks who want to see something like this and a lot of folks who don't," Lindholm said. "We're pretty firm on our House position. That was a House bill. I think that should carry some weight with the Senate." 

The issue of crossover voting 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.