CHEYENNE – The Senate voted Thursday to kill the last bill in the Legislature that would have closed the state’s primary elections to voters who switched their party affiliation.
House Bill 106, sponsored by Rep. Jim Blackburn, R-Cheyenne, was voted down by the Senate on a 14-11 vote. The failure of HB 106, or the other two bills that were filed this session on the issue, came as somewhat of a surprise to many watching this session.
The issue was named the top priority of the Wyoming Republican Party this year. And donors, including former gubernatorial candidate Foster Friess, lobbied the Legislature hard to make the changes a reality.
“On behalf of the party, we’re disappointed. We made it the No. 1 priority,” said Frank Eathorne, chairman of the Wyoming Republican Party.
“Republicans statewide will look at this issue with the expectation of change.”
This session, committees in the House and Senate played ping-pong with HB 106, drastically altering the bill with multiple amendments throughout the process. The House sent HB 106 to the Senate two weeks ago as a narrower bill than originally envisioned by Blackburn.
That House version would only have prevented same-day party switching on primary election day, except for unaffiliated voters, who could still declare an affiliation on election day to vote in the primary of their choosing.
But the Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee put back HB 106’s original May 1 deadline for switching affiliation, along with requiring a voter to show photo ID to switch affiliation. While the ID requirement was taken out of the bill on the floor Thursday, it still wasn’t enough to win over the majority of senators.
After the vote Thursday, several senators seemed to celebrate the bill’s death, including Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, a major critic of the idea. In a previous interview, Case said if the goal of closing the primary off was to elect more conservative candidates, it could have the unintended consequences of electing more Democrats into office.
“I think it’s bad for the majority party. I think it’s bad for Wyoming,” Case said during the floor debate Thursday.
The issue of crossover voting first was formally voiced the day after last year’s primary by Friess, who said in an email to party leaders that Democrats and Independents who changed their affiliation to Republican on Election Day caused him to lose to now-Gov. Mark Gordon.
Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, said the May deadline was too limiting. It would keep anyone from switching their party affiliation before candidates even had the chance to file to run.
“They won’t even know who’s running for office. Most often, people file during the month of May, so I think that’s onerous,” Landen said. “I think people back home are really going to be upset about this [if it passes].”
Eathorne said the party’s central committee decided last year to support closing the primary in May. With HB 106’s defeat, he said the central committee would get back to work to see what parameters of any bill could be negotiable and what elements they wouldn’t support.
“We think this is a Republican value,” Eathorne said. “And with the fact that there was this number of bills [in the Legislature]w and it brought the amount of attention it did, statewide, Republicans will remain focused on the matter.”