For years, Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester) saw the Legislature defeat the “crossover” voting ban his party expected him to deliver. So, with the bill on the verge of victory this session, and some fellow Republicans still correctly calling it unconstitutional and a threat to democracy, he exploded.
“It’s been probably the most vetted bill this body has ever seen,” Biteman said of preventing Wyoming voters from choosing their party on primary day. “It’s been shot at. It’s been nuclear-bombed. It’s been fumigated. It’s been thrown in the garbage can. It’s been beaten, dragged, you name it.”
A bit hyperbolic, perhaps, but these bills have been thrown in the trash year after year only to be revived.
I would have preferred shredding the bill, burning it and throwing the ashes out at sea, but I suppose it would have only delayed the inevitable: Biteman and his cronies would somehow tape the bill back together and assign it to a friendly committee.
Gov. Mark Gordon allowed House Bill 103 – Political party affiliation and changes to become law without his signature, a good indication of how bad this stink bomb really is. He knew the House and Senate would override a veto, and he didn’t want to put his name on a law that’s certain to be challenged in court.
The new law bars voters from changing party affiliation during the 96 days before a primary. The May 1 party-declaration deadline now comes before the candidate filing deadline, meaning voters must choose their party without even knowing who the candidates are.
The governor told the Legislature he didn’t sign HB 103 because “it adds uncertainty to the voting process.”
Translation: When people try to vote in the next primary election and thousands aren’t given a ballot of the party they want, don’t blame me.
Gordon wanted assurance from the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Haroldson (R-Wheatland), that new voters who have not chosen a party will be able to register for the primary. Haroldson said that’s his intention, which apparently is all the governor needed to hear. But there’s nothing in HB 103 that says that will happen.
Gordon’s response is peculiar given his role in his party’s battle against crossover voting. In the 2018 GOP gubernatorial primary, Gordon, the more moderate candidate, defeated conservatives Foster Friess and Harriet Hageman.
The Wyoming Republican Party’s extreme-right leadership blamed the outcome on Democrats who switched party affiliation to vote for Gordon — despite the fact that the number of crossover voters was smaller than Gordon’s margin of victory.
A crossover voting ban has been the GOP’s top legislative priority ever since. In 2019, Biteman filed a bill that was promptly killed by the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee.
The next day Chairman Bill Landen (R-Casper) changed his mind and ordered another vote. But Sen. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) switched to the other side, so the bill still died.
Within days Senate leadership allowed Biteman to file the same bill again, this time assigning it to the reliably right-wing Senate Agriculture Committee, which rubber-stamped it. The Senate overwhelmingly passed this “zombie bill” and sent it to the House.
But the subterfuge didn’t work. A House committee killed it. The hijinx have continued each year since, always with the same outcome, until now.
The January session began with Biteman’s latest attempt killed by the same committee that stuck a fork in his 2019 bill. That left HB 103 as the crossover ban’s last chance.
The bill cruised through the House, but was “killed” by Senate Corporations. That didn’t matter — the zombie was revived and sent to the Senate Revenue Committee, which loved it.
The Senate approved HB 103 nearly 2-to-1. It survived 12 hostile amendment attempts. That’s typically a sign that a bill isn’t ready for prime time, but Biteman and other backers would not be denied no matter how well-reasoned the opposition’s arguments were.
In one of the session’s best debates, opponents threw everything they had at the bill. The charge was led by Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), a fiscal conservative with libertarian social views who was censured twice by his party last year.
“Leadership of the majority party often is disappointed when someone that is not adhering to the litmus test squeezes through the primary,” Case said. “Lo and behold, someone might come out that’s a little bit more moderate.”
Senate President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) co-sponsored HB 103 and ultimately voted for it, but was definitely upset. You can always tell because he apologizes for being angry, then let’s loose about why.
“Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, and it doesn’t make it right … I don’t think this bill does at all what the intent is,” Driskill said. “You’ve heard the old saying about the camel having its nose under the tent? Well folks, you’re about to let a herd of RINOs in.”
“Everyone will become, no matter what their ideology, a Republican,” predicted Sen. Stephan Pappas (R-Cheyenne). “I don’t think that’s what the Republican Party wants. I don’t think it’s what other parties want either, but we’re forcing their hand.”
Several senators said people want to participate in the Republican primary elections because with so few Democrats running, the GOP ballot is where races are decided.
The nefarious “meddling” in Republican politics alleged by Biteman will not be changed by a crossover ban. Pappas is right; if for nothing more than convenience, Democrats will stay registered Republicans. The same people the GOP fears will continue to vote in Republican primaries. So what’s the point?
Case offered an amendment to reduce the “blackout” period when voters can’t change party affiliation from 96 days to 45 days, when absentee ballots are available. It was shot down, along with an effort by Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) to allow Democrats to opt-out of the process.
“Make no mistake — [in HB 103] we’re trying to keep certain people from voting in elections that are important to them,” Rothfuss said. “We call it meddling, we call it crossover. We have terms and euphemisms; we have concepts of how this is bad and evil behavior. There’s no evil, there’s no mischief, it’s just democracy.”
Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson), the only other Democrat in the chamber, asked the 29 Republicans, “Who is this bill aimed at? The two of us? I don’t think so.”
Gierau said the bill is Republican leaders “telling your party who you’re going to vote for, who you’re going to see on the ballot,” he said. “You’re not going to know who they are before you have a chance to vote for them, but by golly you’re going to vote for the people we say.”
Of course, the GOP has always been welcome to hold its own primary, by its own rules, without a legislative “fix.” They’d simply have to spend the roughly $1 million it takes to put on the contest each cycle, instead of letting taxpayers pick-up the tab. Apparently, however, they’re not so opposed to government funding when the party is the beneficiary.
In the end, though, this isn’t about ideology, it’s about the corrupting influence of power. The GOP holds 86 of Wyoming’s 93 legislative seats — the largest supermajority in the country — all five state-wide elected offices and the entirety of our federal delegation and now it is requiring voters to choose sides without knowing its candidates. If anyone has a better example of the dangers of concentrated power, please let me know.