Wyoming voters’ have retained their right to change party affiliation on Election Day after a bill to restrict the practice died in the Wyoming House of Representatives. Senate File 97 – Change in party affiliation died quietly when it did not receive a first reading vote in the House by the deadline. As in years prior, the Wyoming Republican Party lobbied heavily in support of the bill, but that did not translate to enough support at the Capitol.
Several election reforms supported by the party failed, including a bill to implement a runoff system. Numerous election reforms opposed by the party succeeded.
“It’s a pretty clear indication that the state party certainly does not speak for all Republicans,” Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne) told WyoFile.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) trekked to the Little America Hotel and Resort complex on Cheyenne’s outskirts on Monday to endorse Cheney challenger Harriet Hageman’s candidacy. He also called on Wyoming lawmakers to pass SF 97 restricting cross-over voting.
“You need to call your state rep and say, ‘This needs to be a Republican-only primary,’” Rand said.
The first nail in SF 97’s coffin came roughly two hours after Paul’s remarks when the House Appropriations Committee voted 5-2 on a “do not pass” recommendation. Had the committee voted to outright kill the bill, the House would have had the ability to bring it back to the floor with a simple majority vote. Per legislative rules, a “do not pass” recommendation lands a bill at the bottom of the general file, with a two-thirds majority vote needed to move it up for consideration to avoid the deadline.
Before the committee made its decision, several members of the public voiced opposition to the bill. That included Angela Sylvester, a Laramie County resident, who said she did not vote in the last election because she was unable to secure childcare as a single mom. She worried the bill would add another obstacle to her civic participation.
“I don’t like to vote along party lines. I want to vote for the best person,” she said.
Gail Symons runs Civics 307, a non-partisan blog dedicated to educating the public on state government. She told the committee crossover voting isn’t the problem — voter turnout is.
“On Election Day 2020, 53,420 registered Republicans stayed home,” Symons said, referencing data from the secretary of state’s office.
Kathy Russell spoke in favor of the bill and told the committee party switching is used to “stymie the political process of the political parties.”
Russell is the executive director of the Wyoming Republican Party, but did not identify herself as party leadership to the committee. Nina Webber, a GOP national committee woman, also testified in favor of the bill without identifying herself as party leadership.
The bill died Tuesday night when the House adjourned.
The number of Wyoming residents who vote by absentee ballot has been rapidly increasing. In 2020, 46% of the votes in Wyoming were cast by absentee ballot. That’s up from 28% in 2016 and was an all-time high for the state, according to Mary Lankford with the County Clerks’ Association of Wyoming.
House Bill 52 – Timeline to prepare and process absentee ballots is meant to account for that by allowing county clerks to start counting absentee ballots the Thursday or Friday before Election Day.
“Wyoming likes their election results on election night,” Lankford told the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee. When nearly half of the vote is by absentee ballot, Lankford said it’s hard for clerks to process ballots in a timely manner.
Not every county sees such high absentee ballot numbers, so the bill gives clerks the flexibility to forego early processing. Should a clerk see the need to get a head start, the bill lays out some stipulations. A clerk must notify the secretary of state’s office. They must also notify each political party, and include details for in-person observation, including date, time and place.
However, the bill prohibits any candidate or candidate’s committee chairperson or treasurer from observing. Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) brought an amendment to allow such individuals to observe, but withdrew it after criticism from several lawmakers.
Before passing both chambers, the House adopted an amendment to create a felony penalty for violations of the act, including providing election results to any person before the polls close.
The state Republican Party opposed the bill. In several emails to its members over the course of the session, the party said the bill “reduces process transparency” and “interferes with grassroots oversight of the election process.” But the majority of lawmakers disagreed.
By Tuesday afternoon, leadership signed the bill and sent it off to the governor’s desk.
A second bill related to absentee ballots was not successful. Like the crossover voting bill, Senate File 96 – Collection of election ballots-prohibition was sponsored by Sen. Biteman and supported by the state party. It would have put restrictions on how people or groups can help voters deliver completed absentee ballots to county clerks.
“It doesn’t make it harder to vote, it makes it harder to cheat,” Biteman told the Senate Agriculture Committee. The bill would specifically prohibit any solicitation, gathering or submission of completed ballots without an accompanying written consent form from the secretary of state. It also created a felony penalty for any violations of such restrictions.
Senate File 96 died on Feb. 28 when it did not receive a first reading in the Senate by deadline.
What else succeeded
House Bill 49 – Election reporting requirements creates an additional campaign finance law in the state meant to bring greater transparency to political organizations operating in Wyoming. It does so by requiring any organization that receives or spends funds in excess of $1,000 for the purpose of influencing an election outcome to officially file as a political organization with the secretary of the state’s office. That must be done within 10 days of receiving or spending such funds, and must include a name and a mailing address.
“We’re about to see more dark money in Wyoming in the next few months than ever in the history of the state,” Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper) said on the Senate floor in favor of the bill.
Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) was concerned the penalties were not high enough to enforce the bill’s intent.
“I don’t see how this closes the door well on bad actors, especially with penalty provisions that are not daunting,” Rothfuss said.
First-time offenders would be subject to a civil penalty of up to $5,000, as well as attorney fees. For second-time offenders, that penalty would increase to $10,000. Additionally, the bill sets up a 21-day grace period for offenders to file a report and appeal the violation, or pay additional fines. The bill also gives the secretary of state’s office the discretion to consider a person’s level of experience with reporting requirements and “any other factor evidencing an intent to evade reporting requirements” when deciding an appeal.
After the Senate passed HB 49 with several amendments, it returned to the House where it passed 41-7 on a concurrence vote.
A second bill related to campaign finance law in Wyoming is on its way to the governor’s desk. House Bill 80 – Campaign Reports-amendments would increase the penalties for campaigns and political action committees that do not file an itemized statement of contributions and expenditures. Instead of a one-time $500 fine, any person or organization failing to file a report would incur up to $500 in daily penalties until said report is filed. Like HB 49, the bill gives discretion to the secretary of state’s office in assessing a fine, and provides a window to resolve the issue.
At Little America, Hageman said she had “no concerns” about edging out Cheney, even if any voting-eligible Wyoming resident is allowed to register as a Republican on Aug. 16, the day of the primary election.
“I’m absolutely confident that I can win this race,” she told a handful of journalists gathered at a press gaggle, “whether the crossover bill passes or not.”
The Wyoming Republican Party has appeared more concerned, however, about crossover voting in the upcoming election, as has former President Donald Trump, who personally called Gov. Mark Gordon in regards to the bill. Both saw the bill as a way to prevent Democrats and independents from voting for Rep. Liz Cheney in the primary election.
A residency complaint lodged against Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) by his own party heightened concerns that outside forces — specifically the state party — would influence the session with efforts to take down perceived moderates.
Lawmakers’ decision on the second day of the session to recognize Zwonitzer as the rightful representative of his district, and the failure of many of party-priority bills were notable to Rep. Landon Brown (R-Cheyenne).
“It’s a pretty clear indication that the people that were elected closer to their constituents, who actually have a voice and the ability to make a law, are listening to their constituents and not to the party,” Brown told WyoFile.
The Wyoming GOP did not respond to WyoFile’s request for comment.
Mike Koshmrl contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Rand Paul represents the state of Kentucky. – Ed