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Primary Voting

Voters wait to cast their primary election ballots on Aug. 21 in the Industrial Building at the Central Wyoming Fairgrounds. A bill allowing counties to move to mail-in ballots passed out of the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Interim Committee on Wednesday.

Allegations Republican candidate for governor Mark Gordon won his primary because of Democrats voting in the GOP contest are statistically unfounded, new voter registration numbers from the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office show.

In the weeks after the election, some Republicans in Wyoming have claimed Gordon, who defeated runner-up Foster Friess by more than 9,000 votes, was pushed over the finish line by Democrats who switched parties to prevent more hard-line candidates from winning. Anecdotes of county boards of elections running out of Republican ballots sparked speculation that a massive campaign to influence the vote must have taken place.

On Monday afternoon, University of Wyoming pollster Brian Harnisch tweeted out a quick overview of voter registration numbers both pre- and post-election, offering a better idea of how many Democrats actually might have switched over.

The answer? Not that many, by his count.

At least, not enough to affect the outcome.

“Sure doesn’t look like ‘Democrats meddled’ in the Wyoming Republican primary,” he tweeted. “Instead – A few Democrats, more independents, and even more Republicans wanted a say in who governor will (or won’t) be. #wyvote”

According to the numbers, between Aug. 21 and Sept. 1, Wyoming’s Republican Party added 8,200 new voters. The Democrats, meanwhile, lost just 1,800 voters during that time, while nearly 2,400 unaffiliated voters chose to register for a party. Though it’s unclear which party they registered with, it’s clear that currently registered voters who either switched parties or chose to participate in the Republican primary were far outweighed by new or returning voters who may simply have chosen to participate in the state’s most competitive race.

However, even if jaded liberals turned out to the polls in force, it still wouldn’t have made much difference: In all, just 3,700 new voters were added to the rolls in the final two weeks of August.

There are several caveats to consider: Some counties, particularly smaller counties, may not verify their rates of crossover in time. A comparison of voter registration numbers between September 2016 and October 2016, for instance, shows an increase of 4,000 new voters, though Democratic registration actually increased by 1,000 in that time. In the lead-up to the general election that year, registration totals for both parties continued to grow, however Republican registration increased at a significantly higher clip.

There is also the possibility that some voters who “crossed over” from the Democrats to the Republicans several years ago simply never switched back. In 2010, for example, there were 65,000 Democrats and 159,000 Republicans registered in Wyoming on Aug. 17, with an additional 36,000 voters unaffiliated. Two months later, there were 2,000 fewer Democrats, 2,000 fewer unaffiliated voters and 11,000 new Republicans, with a net gain of 7,000 new voters.

The practice of crossover voting reform in Wyoming has been a contentious subject since Gordon won the GOP primary for governor. After his defeat, Friess suggested a change to the law to eliminate the practice of crossover voting in Wyoming.

Through a spokeswoman, Gordon declined comment on the new data. Friess stressed the need for Republicans to rally behind Gordon as he faces Democrat Mary Throne in the general election.

In a 1,600 word article published by American Thinker late last week that has been shared widely on social media, conservative writer Karin McQuillan – who profiled Republican candidate Harriet Hageman in a glowing piece earlier this year – decried the practice, describing this year’s outcome, in the headline, as the result of a “Democrat Election Scam.”

The article went on to blame a small group called “Switch for Wyoming,” which encouraged some voters to cross over, and claimed Gordon’s victory was a plot by liberals to embarrass Donald Trump – who endorsed Friess the morning of the election.

“In a state where he beat Hillary Clinton by 46 percent, President Trump has just been cheated of an ally among the governors, and Wyoming’s voters have been cheated of a true conservative candidate,” she wrote. “Gordon’s win was also used by President Trump’s opponents in the media to embarrass him, because on Election Day, the president tweeted his support for the conservative frontrunner, Foster Friess.”

Crossover voting looks to be a concern of the GOP as well: Last week on its Facebook page, the state Republican party shared a political cartoon commenting on the topic in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle newspaper, stating above it “We agree with the Tribune Eagle; this needs fixing! At our last convention, Republicans resolved to do exactly that!”

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Where have all the Democrats gone?

If liberals are actively working to influence the outcomes of Republican races in Wyoming, they’ve likely already been doing it from the inside for a long time. For the Democratic Party, voter registration – currently at around 44,500 members – is substantially lower than it once was.

In 2008 — a presidential election year with a key primary on the Democratic side between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – Wyoming counted nearly 62,000 Democrats registered with the party. Two years later, in the next governor’s race, there was a peak total of 65,000 Democrats statewide.

As of Aug. 21 this year, a third of Wyoming’s Democratic base from a decade ago is gone — at least according to the voter rolls. Meanwhile, there are 43,000 more registered voters in Wyoming compared to a decade ago, largely attributable to a February 2011 purge that removed about 17,000 Democrats and 28,000 Republicans from the rolls. The following year, Democrats replenished only about 11,000 voters by year’s end while Republicans, during the Republican Primary alone, gained nearly 8,000 voters. By year’s end, the Republican party had replenished 22,000 voters out of a statewide net increase of 68,000 new voters.

There is an argument that liberal voters, frustrated with their lack of representation in the electorate, may have simply begun to register as Republicans in order to have more impact on the vote, helping to inflate Republican registration numbers. This, according to data analysis from some GOP operatives, could be part of the story, but may not be completely accurate.

A document based on Secretary of State data provided to the Star-Tribune argues that while, numerically, Wyoming saw the second-highest Republican turnout in its history (the 1994 election, the paper notes, had 2,361 more people vote), it is not the highest turnout by percentage: in fact, it is near the historical average for an election of this type.

What drove the large volume of turnout, the author of the paper argued, was an increase in the overall number of individuals who registered as Republicans. With turnout by percentage hovering between 60 percent and 66 percent in every election dating back to 1994, and party registration numbers staying consistent with the increasing voting age population since then, it’s hard to make a statistical argument that the game has changed significantly for Republicans from what it once was.

If anything, the author was left to wonder why turnout by percentage wasn’t higher than it was: The paper notes that both the Republican governor’s race and the party’s U.S. Senate races combined to spend approximately $13 million in less than five months – more than four times the amount spent in any other primary election in Wyoming history.

“With this volume of message,” the author writes, “one wonders why turnout wasn’t even higher.”

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Follow politics reporter Nick Reynolds on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds

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