Senate bills offer divergent views for future elections


By Andrew Graham, WyoFile.com

Two bills proposed in the Wyoming Senate offer dramatically different visions for future Wyoming elections — with one seeking to restrict primary voting to the party faithful and the other seeking to sideline political parties and make primaries wide open.

Senate File 32 Change in political party affiliation is sponsored by Sen. Bo Biteman (R-Ranchester). The bill would bar voters from switching their parties after the first day candidates can file for primary elections. Voters would have to pick a party before they knew all the primary candidates — keeping them from voting in another party’s primary to block a candidate or advance another, Biteman said. 

The bill answers conservative concerns that Democrats are switching parties to influence Republican primary elections by voting for moderates, Biteman said.  “It should have been called the ‘stay in your lane bill’,” he said. 

Senate Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) has offered Senate File 65 Open ranked choice elections. The Democrat’s bill would create a ranked voting system and toss out partisan primaries entirely. Under the bill, candidates could still choose to affiliate with a political party, but voters would vote for whichever candidates they wish and would rank them in order. The two candidates who receive the most votes would move forward into the general election. 

“If we stop worrying so much about party and start worrying about people, we can have good elections,” Rothfuss said. His bill would eliminate Republican concerns about Democratic meddling, he argued, because without party-based primaries, there could be no primary switching.

“The outcome of the primary is the two most supported candidates advance,” Rothfuss said. “It flat out solves everybody’s problems.”

The proverbial “straw”

At a closed-door party caucus, GOP officials told Republican lawmakers that passing legislation to restrict primary party vote switching is the top priority for the party, according to people in attendance.

Party switching has been a concern for conservatives for years and SF32 is not a direct response to the August 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary, Biteman said. After the August primary, some conservatives accused Democrats of tipping the governor’s race to Mark Gordon, who was elected in November. The day after the primary election Foster Friess, who placed second in the primary, suggested a policy change to the other defeated candidates and Republican party Chairman Frank Eathorne. Similar bills have been proposed — and failed — in previous legislative sessions.

But conservatives were particularly irked by “overt party raiding,” Biteman said, like the organized effort of Switch for Wyoming — a social media campaign funded by progressive donors that called for people to cross party lines to elect Gordon and block conservative Foster Friess.

“This year was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Biteman said. “Even moderates got a little squeamish.”

Biteman’s bill is one of two that has been introduced by conservative lawmakers to stop “party switching” so far this session. Bills will continue to be added to the Legislature’s agenda well into January. The deadline for House bills to be submitted to the Legislative Service Office is Jan. 29. The deadline for Senate files is Jan. 24.

Rep. Jim Blackburn (R-Cheyenne) is bringing a bill, House Bill 106 Party affiliation changes, that bars voters from changing their primary affiliation on May 1. Biteman avoided including a hard date, he said, in case the filing dates for candidates change.

Some Republicans believe their vote was “diluted” this year, Biteman said.

In the weeks leading up to the primary, 12,509 people switched parties, according to data released by the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office. The data captures switches from July 6 to Sept. 20 — county election offices get one month to file party changes made on primary election day with the Secretary of State.

Of those, the vast majority were people joining the Republican party, but not all were Democrats switching. There were 6,057 Democrats who changed parties, and 4,355 independent voters who chose to participate in the Republican primary. The other 2,097 switches included voters becoming Democrats, Independents and other parties.

In a press release accompanying the data, the Secretary of State’s office was quick to note that the data did not indicate which candidate the new Republicans had voted for.

Nor is it clear to what extent organized efforts like Switch For Wyoming had an effect. The group spent broadly on digital advertising in a short period — dropping $24,520 on Facebook ads from Aug. 14-21, according to a filing with the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office. They spent another $6,885 on a call and text program from Aug. 18-21.

Gordon defeated Friess by 9,109 votes.

Biteman would like to see someone bring a runoff bill as well, he said. His bill would not create such a system, because of laws dictating a bill must tackle only one topic. But if he could, he would change statute to force a runoff in primary elections between the top two candidates unless someone secured more than 50 percent of the vote.

Even with his win, Biteman said, Gordon still suffers from the lingering perception of meddling in the Republican primary.

“Gov. Gordon’s got that cloud kind of over his head,” Biteman said, “and that’s unfortunate because he’s duly elected.”

To the Senate Minority Floor Leader, the entire concept of partisan primaries is an improper use of state funds for party affairs. “I can’t believe it’s in statute,” he said.

Political parties are “not governmental organizations,” Rothfuss said. “They’re clubs.”  

Under Rothfuss’ bill, votes in primary and general elections would be counted in rounds if there are more than two candidates for a position. In each round ballots would count as a vote for the voter’s top ranked candidate. If that candidate is eliminated, the voter’s second choice would become their top ranked candidate in the subsequent round.

In primary elections, the two candidates with the most votes would advance to the general.

Rothfuss’ bill would also affect vacancy nominations — which today are largely a party measure. A vacancy would occur if a primary election winner declines to accept the nomination, dies or is unable to hold the office for other reasons. 

Currently, such vacancies would be filled by the county party, or if it is a statewide race, the party’s state central committee. Under Rothfuss’ bill, vacancies would be filled by the next highest vote collector from the primary election. Only if no qualified candidate existed would the party get to make a choice.

Rothfuss’ bill also eliminates the election of county party precinct committeemen and women from primary ballots. Those officers are strictly partisan. They would be eliminated as a procedural side effect of eliminating partisan primaries. 

The bill would dent party influence and force candidates to appeal to broader slices of voters, Rothfuss said. To emerge from more crowded fields candidates would have to appeal more to the center from the beginning of their campaigns, instead of spending months trying to win over more ideologically hardened voters before shifting towards a more moderate approach in the general election.

“It changes the discourse,” Rothfuss said. “You don’t get to show up to your choir and preach.”

Both the Biteman bill and the Blackburn bill enjoy the support of several co-sponsors, all Republicans. Rothfuss’s proposal has bipartisan support, including the co-sponsorships of Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) and Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne) chairmen of the 2017-18 Joint Corporations, Elections, and Political Subdivisions Committee.

If there’s common ground between Biteman and Rothfuss’s disparate visions for future Wyoming elections, it’s largely in a disappointment with the two major political parties. Biteman reviewed four different options for changing the primary system. A proposal like Rothfuss’ was on one end of the spectrum, Biteman said. A system where party officials choose the primary nominee in caucus was on the other end.

Though Biteman doesn’t like one party’s members voting in another’s primary, he said he doesn’t always like the results of the party system either. “If we can’t fix it I’m out and will run as an independent,” he said.

Wyoming could have an election for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2020 if Republican Mike Enzi retires. If so, Biteman envisions a crowded, contentious and expensive Republican primary. The Republican candidate who emerges might do so with a low percentage of the vote — even lower than Gordon’s 33 percent in the 2018 primary, Biteman said.

In 1994, former U.S. Rep Barbara Cubin won the GOP primary with 34 percent of the vote, defeating four other candidates for the open seat.   

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