Wyoming's system of allowing voters to register at the polls for primary elections encourages people to participate in the electoral process. That's undeniably a good thing.
But two Republican legislators, Sen. Kit Jennings of Casper and Rep. Amy Edmonds of Cheyenne, are co-sponsoring a bill that would require people to decide on their party affiliation 90 days before the primary election, unless they are registering for the first time. This major change would undoubtedly result in fewer voters choosing the Republican and Democratic nominees.
The problems we see with Senate File 13 are two-fold. First, there isn't a problem with the current process that needs to be solved. Second, the state shouldn't be able to tell people they can't change their party registration and vote for the candidate(s) of their choice.
Jennings said he views the proposal as "a housekeeping bill" that's not a big deal. "It defines what a primary is," he said, and added that voters would still be able to change their registration for the general election.
But it's actually a very big deal. It's an attempt to limit individual political choice.
Wyoming voters have historically voted for individuals based upon their character and personal qualities, not because of partisan affiliation. Voters should continue to have the ability to support any candidate they believe represents their political views.
Unlike states with open primaries, Wyoming already forces citizens who consider themselves independent to choose one of the two major political parties in order to participate in the primary election process. Requiring voters to choose a party 90 days before the primary further limits public participation in our democracy.
Edmonds said, "We're trying to be certain there is no mischief in Wyoming elections." The bill would block groups of voters who decide to change their registration because they want to "meddle" in the other party's primary election. "You should not play in the other political party," Edmonds added.
But there are many reasons voters choose particular political parties. It's a decision that may be based on an individual's political philosophy, the strengths or weaknesses of candidates running for office in both parties, or positions the respective parties have taken on issues viewed as important by the voter. It's not only presumptuous of the sponsors of SF 13 to declare that a voter's intent is mischief. It's simply impossible to determine one's intent -- nor is it the state's business to do so.
"Who has the authority to say a voter decision on election day is 'mischief?'" asked Marguerite Herman, lobbyist for the Wyoming League of Women Voters. "Certainly not the Legislature or any other branch of government."
One of the motivating factors behind the bill is the fact that nearly 10,000 Wyoming voters changed their registration for the August primary. Most of these crossovers are believed to be Democrats who wanted to vote in the contentious GOP primary for governor, which had five candidates on the ballot, including the ultimate winner of the general election, Matt Mead.
If SF 13 was state law, many of these 10,000 people may simply have chosen to stay home instead of go to the polls, since their right to vote for the candidate of their choice was denied by the state. How in the world can anyone argue that would be a better, more democratic outcome?