GOP-Sought Primary Voter Restrictions Become Law in Wyoming

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- Switching political parties to be able to choose the primary in which a voter wants to cast a ballot is an old Wyoming tradition, one that has faced growing scrutiny as the state's Democrats increasingly struggle to field strong candidates and Republican primaries often all but decide who eventually wins office.

At least some Democrats in this GOP-dominated state haven't been shy about changing party affiliation just to vote in Republican primaries, including the blockbuster U.S. House race featuring Rep. Liz Cheney's loss to Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman last summer.

Amid GOP grumbling about "crossover voting," switching parties ahead of primaries is about to get a lot more difficult. Republican Gov. Mark Gordon said Thursday he would allow a bill curtailing the practice to take effect Friday without his signature.

The bill has flaws that may confuse voters but they aren't serious enough to warrant a veto, Gordon said in a brief statement.

Until now, Wyoming voters have been able to register to vote and declare party affiliation at the polls or up to two weeks before primary day. The new law prohibits changing party affiliation for almost three months before primary day in August.

Crossover voting in Wyoming got fresh attention ahead of the 2022 primary as former President Donald Trump and allies sought to discourage the state's dwindling number of Democrats from voting for Cheney as she courted Democratic votes.

"It makes total sense that only Democrats vote in the Democrat primary and only Republicans vote in the Republican primary," Trump said in a statement endorsing a similar bill last year that failed.

Access to voting in primaries varies widely across the country, ranging from 20 states where any voter may choose candidates from any party to nine states where only voters registered with a party can vote for that party's candidates. The rest fall in between with a variety of rules, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Wyoming, Trump's concerns about the Cheney race turned out to be overblown. Cheney, who stoked Trump's ire by voting to impeach him for the Jan. 6, 2021, violence at the U.S. Capitol and by leading the House investigation into the insurrection, lost by 37 points, enough that even all the Democrats in Wyoming couldn't have helped her to win.

Wyoming secretary of state figures suggest crossover voting occurred. Democratic registration fell from about 46,000 in January 2022, to 36,000 on primary day, Aug. 16, bottoming out post-primary at 30,000 in September -- a modern-day low.

Republican registration, meanwhile, climbed from about 196,000 in January 2022, to 215,000 on primary day and 235,000 in September. Republican registration previously peaked at 209,000 after the 2020 election.

Cheney's losing margin of almost 64,000 votes, however, far exceeded Wyoming's Democratic registration at any given time in the past decade.

Fears among Wyoming Republicans have nevertheless been growing that Democrats in disguise are watering down conservative values among leading GOP candidates at all levels.

Crossover voting has "undermined the sanctity of Wyoming's primary process," Republican Secretary of State Chuck Gray said in a statement after the bill cleared the House.

A former state legislator, Gray ran for the state's top election oversight job last year on the debunked claim that widespread voter fraud cost Trump the 2020 election. Gray won a three-way GOP primary with 44%.

The Wyoming Republican Party, which censured Cheney for opposing Trump and voted to no longer recognize her as a Republican, has supported the change as a top priority.

"Political parties should be able to select their own candidates free of interference and manipulation by outside entities," a state party resolution stated last fall.

The bill had far from unanimous support, however, even in a Wyoming Legislature more dominated by Republicans than at any time since 1920. Just seven of 93 state legislators are Democrats.

At one point, the bill failed on a 3-1 committee vote but was resurrected under a rule allowing reconsideration by the Senate, which passed the bill 19-11 on Feb. 24. Opponents included the chamber's two Democrats and several Republicans who said GOP dominance in Wyoming is already almost absolute.

"By all accounts, we are becoming more polarized. And when you become more polarized, you want absolute control. That's what this bill does," Republican Sen. Cale Case said in debate on the Senate floor.

Case sought to change the bill to reduce the blackout period for changing parties to 45 days before the primary. His proposal failed and the bill as passed would have barred party registration changes after the candidate filing deadline on the last Friday in May until primary day for both parties on the third Tuesday in August.

Some lawmakers pointed out that other states, such as New York, have more restrictive party registration rules than Wyoming.

"We're making it sound like we're just going to be this draconian island in the middle of this country that has this horrible closed primary system. And that's not the case. We're still relatively an open primary state," Republican Sen. Bo Biteman said.

Before last year, Republican mega-donor Foster Friess claimed after his unsuccessful run for Wyoming governor in 2018 that he could have won if Democrats hadn't switched to vote for Gordon. Some observers, including University of Wyoming data analyst Brian Harnisch, doubted the claim and the issue has faded as a major concern in the governor's race.

Gordon received 59% in a four-way Republican primary last year and won a second term with 76% of the vote.