Republican lawmakers question GOP party-switch bill

By MEAD GRUVER, Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Members of an all-Republican legislative committee voiced concerns Thursday about a bill that would bar voters from changing party affiliation in the months before primary elections, a proposal GOP leaders have identified as their top priority this year.

Three of the five members of the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee questioned whether the bill would help the democratic process or comply with federal law.

“It appears to me this bill is not ready for prime time,” said Sen. Tara Nethercott, R-Cheyenne. “I think there’s a significant number of ramifications the party needs to consider first.”

The committee will continue discussing the bill Tuesday.

The bill’s goal is to discourage voters from one party influencing the other party’s primary. Republicans dominate Wyoming politics but increasingly complain that Democrats unfairly influence their primaries by registering as Republicans.
Similar legislation has failed in the past. State GOP Chairman Frank Eathorne says it’s the party’s top priority for the legislative session.

“We do feel that our primary has been compromised and quite egregiously in this cycle more than in past cycles,” Eathorne told the committee.

National GOP mega-donor Foster Friess, who finished second in a six-way 2018 gubernatorial primary, complained soon after the vote that Democrats voting as Republicans influenced the outcome.

Friess emailed the complaint to four of the five other Republican candidates but not Mark Gordon, suggesting whom he thought benefited from the crossover voting. Gordon went on to win the general election by a wide margin and is now governor.

Party registration statistics compiled by the secretary of state’s office suggest that crossover voting happened in the GOP primary.

Voters may register and change party affiliation up to two weeks before a primary, at the polls or when requesting an absentee ballot.

The bill wants to prevent voters from changing party affiliation any time after candidates begin to apply for their party’s primary nomination. In 2018, that would have prevented party-switching between May 17 and the primaries on Aug. 21.

Democrats in other states have raised similar complaints about Republican interference in primaries, bill co-sponsor Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, said.

“It’s a bipartisan problem. We just happen to have it one way in Wyoming,” Biteman said.

But an opponent of the proposal in the past, Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said that not allowing voters to “go back and forth” is counterproductive for the democratic process. Nethercott, Case and Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, also questioned whether the bill would cause problems under the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to allow people to register to vote when they apply for a driver’s license or public assistance.

Wyoming’s polling place registration law makes it one of six states exempted under the federal act. Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Wisconsin are the others.

Losing that exemption could require costly new registration procedures, committee members said, such as implementing a voter registration process at the DMV.
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