CHEYENNE — After broad public interest pushed testimony over two days, the Wyoming Legislature’s Committee on Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions killed a bill that would have prohibited the practice of crossover voting in the state’s elections in a terse 3-2 vote Tuesday morning.
The second attempt to move the topic of crossover voting since November, Tuesday’s vote doesn’t totally kill a resolution to the issue this session; a similar bill — House Bill 106, sponsored by Rep. Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne — was assigned to the House Corporations Committee a week ago.
“Aye” votes Tuesday included Sens. Wendy Davis Schuler, R-Evanston, and Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne, who both opposed the bill but said they believed it deserved the consideration of the full Senate.
Crossover voting has been in the crosshairs of Wyoming’s conservatives since the conclusion of the Republican gubernatorial primary, where Republicans accused Democrats of “crossing over” using Wyoming’s same-day voter registration system to influence the outcome of their election. The idea of addressing the issue with legislation was first introduced in the last meeting of the committee during the interim. However, that was dead upon arrival, with the committee showing little interest in bringing up the issue.
Despite this, Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, introduced his own bill on the issue in late December with support from several prominent Republicans. Last Thursday, Wyoming Republican Party chairman Frank Eathorne testified to the committee that eliminating crossover voting was the party’s top priority this session. Parker Jackson, a lobbyist for Foster’s Outriders — a group formed from millionaire Foster Friess’ failed bid for governorship — testified on both days in favor of the bill, arguing that as private entities, parties should be able to set their own platforms and elect their own candidates.
“A vote for this bill is a vote for the First Amendment,” he said Thursday.
However, there were others — both Republican and not — who opposed the bill.
While proponents of the bill said Senate File 32 would have helped to preserve the integrity of the state’s two-party system, others, like Sen. Charlie Scott, a Casper Republican, said the legislation would have only alienated voters — particularly those in places like Natrona County, where the oil and gas industry creates a highly transient electorate.
Others who voted against the bill said that the bill would lock voters into a commitment to a party up to 1 1/2 years in advance, long before the candidates became apparent. Marguerite Herman, speaking on behalf of the Wyoming League of Women Voters, said that SF32 encourages people not to think about the candidate — which she said used to be a priority — but to instead think about the party, contradicting an issue often raised that people don’t take long enough to research the candidates.
“They want to be informed and then to vote,” Herman said.
Nethercott, who made it clear she was personally not in favor of the bill, said that Wyoming has appreciated the freedom to choose the candidate they want for decades and felt uneasy upending that over the interests of one party in the form of a “kneejerk reaction to something that doesn’t truly address the problem.”
Though acknowledging the Republican Party supported the bill, Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, noted that the party was not homogeneous.
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“They don’t necessarily reflect the wishes of all the people under that banner,” he said.
A divergent approach
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, offered the committee a different approach to the state’s elections that will be debated on the floor of the Senate this session: a hybrid, ranked-choice election system that removes partisanship from the primary process entirely.
Elections are evolving, Rothfuss said, and as the state’s politics become increasingly polarized and dominated by a single party, the level of discourse in the state’s elections — and citizens’ ability to choose the candidates who best represent them — have begun to diminish. He said closed primaries force candidates to tailor their message to the party early on, which makes it harder for voters to get to know their candidates.
As other states move on to more open elections and systems like ranked choice, Rothfuss argued the only reason Wyoming still has closed, partisan primaries is out of simplicity.
“(The system in place) is not a particularly good election or primary system, but we do this because it’s the easiest,” he said.
He argued by a ranked-choice, open primary system, parties would be free to choose and support candidates that best represent their priorities while freeing those candidates to participate in a marketplace of ideas — not just preaching to your own team, Rothfuss said.
Some critics of the bill, however, argued the legislation would actually serve to reduce the visibility and influence of minority parties. Scott, the Casper Republican, said he had reservations about the bill’s ability to create fair elections due to the differences in turnout between the primary and general election, which could result in the dominant party washing out the minority party and effectively locking them out.
Rothfuss noted that the state’s officeholders are mostly Republicans and that the state has already effectively locked out the Democrats, an idea backed up by later testimony that Republican voter registration numbers today might be inflated because Democrats may have just “given up” on trying to get their candidates elected.
The bill passed the committee 3-2, with Scott and Sen. Bill Landen voting no. Now on to the Senate, the bill will be debated in full, though it has some obstacles. According to the state’s elections director, Kai Schon, the state’s voting equipment is currently not modern enough to handle ranked-choice elections, and its success is contingent on an election readiness bill currently working its way through the House. County Clerks have also not participated in the process of drafting the legislation, inspiring some discussion about the topic being taken up in the interim.
Rothfuss noted the change might be a long way off but said it represented “the future of elections” across the country on the state level.
“There’s a lot more that needs doing,” he said. “But this is the best process forward.”