CHEYENNE — Throughout the 2019 Legislative Session, the Wyoming Republican Party has made its No. 1 priority clear: ending the practice of crossover voting — switching one’s party to vote in an opposing race — in the state’s elections.
After numerous defeats over the past several months, lawmakers sympathetic to the cause have managed to push the debate into both the House and Senate, opening up the issue to the full legislature for the first time since a version of the bill was first introduced — and subsequently dismissed — in November.
Sponsored primarily by Sen. Bo Biteman, Senate File 160 has bounced around in this year’s general session and several times has experienced close defeats in committee. Though a mirror bill in the House — sponsored by Rep. Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne — passed first blush in the House Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Tuesday morning by a 7-2 vote, Biteman’s efforts in the Senate have suffered several defeats.
Up for debate before Senate Corporations for the fi rst time, the bill was killed after two days of debate only to reemerge two days later. After a discussion with Secretary of State Ed Buchanan, Senate President Drew Perkins told reporters last week, Perkins opted to assign the bill to a more sympathetic committee where it would have the votes to pass.
Agriculture heard the bill for the first time on Tuesday night, roughly 13 hours after the mirror bill passed in the House. That committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill.
Lines of attack for and against the bill have been well-defined. For staunch Republicans, arguments have largely centered around ideas of maintaining party purity and protecting the integrity of the party nominating process by eliminating what many characterized as “mischievous voting.”
What has often been contested about their arguments has been how they plan to do it: by restricting the length of time somebody can switch parties before the primary election. While staunch conservatives have maintained that a long blackout period to change parties was necessary to prevent candidates — particularly Republicans — from being “targeted” by the opposing party, advocates for a shorter time period warned that such a practice would encourage increasing polarization in both parties.
Equality State Policy Center lobbyist Chris Merrill, who spoke out several times against the bill, argued the ability to switch parties easily allows people to vote for the candidate — not the party — and that restrictions on crossover would lead to voters locking themselves into what he characterized as a blind, ideologically driven commitment to their party.
Proponents for the bill, however, argued that was their right, and United States Supreme Court decisions such as Rosario v. Rockefeller supported their argument that a closed primary was well within their First Amendment rights to hold.
“A vote for this bill is a vote for the First Amendment,” said Parker Jackson, a lobbyist for former gubernatorial candidate Foster Friess, who argued for an end to crossover voting after a second-place finish in the Republican primary last year.
However, critics of the bill argued that functionally, party affiliation has lost the meaning it once had, and the Republican Party in Wyoming now operates on a spectrum of ideas, in part due to it becoming diluted by Democrats and independents who decided long ago that an election’s results are now decided in the primaries.
Gail Simmons, a Republican from Cheyenne, cited data noting that very few registered Republicans actually participate in party activities, and Merrill, noting he himself had crossed over several times, argued that the approach would lead to a more “cynical” attitude toward the electoral process in Wyoming, and further encourage a one-party system in the state.
That, Biteman argued, was not the bill’s intent.
“I sincerely wish we had a more robust Democratic party in the state,” he said. “A lot of cases where the race is decided in the primary, that’s unfortunate. But that doesn’t change the fact Republicans want to pick their own nominees.”