JACKSON — On July 21, 2000, Dick Cheney went to the Teton County Clerk’s Office to fill out a voter registration form, as ABC News filmed and other national media later swarmed.

Cheney registered to vote in Wyoming, changing his registration from Texas, where he worked for a Dallas corporation and gave a Dallas address on property listings. The change in registration was a “key clue that he would be [George W.] Bush’s pick for vice president,” the Jackson Hole Guide reported. Four days later, Cheney officially became Bush’s running mate.

The change in registration was necessary because the Constitution bars candidates from claiming electoral votes in a state if the nominees for president and vice president are both from that same state. Hence the Bush-Cheney ticket could not have won Texas’ whopping 32 electoral votes. It was the first time Cheney, a longtime Republican congressman from Wyoming, registered to vote in Teton County.

But a new law passed by the Republican-dominated Wyoming Legislature would have prevented Cheney from registering as a Wyoming Republican and ultimately becoming the nation’s vice president.

House Bill 103 seeks to curtail the practice of “crossover voting,” whereby voters switch party affiliation to influence the outcome of a primary election. The bill says voters must declare or change party affiliation before the first day candidates may file to run for office, typically in mid- to late May — in essence, voters have to choose a party before they know who is running for office.

The bill passed the Legislature in late February, and Gov. Mark Gordon allowed it to become law on March 3 without his signature.

Before the change in law, Wyoming voters could declare their party affiliation and receive a primary ballot of their choice at any time, even at the polls on Election Day.

For voters who’ve grown accustomed to moving freely between parties, the 2024 general election could be confusing. 

The bill will restrict Democrats and independents in the nation’s most conservative state. But it also could affect Republicans who move here after the filing period begins or voters who turn 18 in the months before a primary.

Teton County Clerk Mo Murphy said that clerks interpret the election statute to continue registering new voters with the party affiliation they choose. But Gov. Gordon cited the bill’s “ambiguity” as the reason why he declined to sign it.

“What was delivered to my desk has ambiguity with the potential to deny participation in a major political primary election in a few limited circumstances,” Gordon wrote in his letter to House Speaker Albert Sommers explaining the move. The changes “will cause some confusion in the coming primary.”

Because 93% of Wyoming voters are registered Republican, Gordon also said the changes were “perhaps more academic than real.” He asked lawmakers to address the confusion in the next session.

Nowhere in Wyoming was crossover more prevalent last election cycle than Teton County, where, according to the Teton County clerk’s office, 3,226 voters — or 32% of primary voters — switched parties before the face-off between U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman and incumbent Liz Cheney, during a time frame that the new law now prohibits switching.

Opponents of the new law say it could chip away at voting rights.

“To me, it’s disenfranchising,” said Maggie Hunt, chair of the Teton County Democratic Party.

Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, who voted against the legislation in the House and was the only opposing vote in the Corporations Committee, said the law would be particularly disenfranchising to “people who don’t know about the change ahead of time.”

Letting voters know the rules have changed is now a job for election organizers: county clerks.

“This will be a pretty big change in the system, especially for all of our unaffiliated voters,” Murphy said.

To get out in front, Murphy said she’d likely ask county commissioners for an additional $10,000 to $15,000 in her upcoming budget for mailers and advertisements.

Before becoming law, House Bill 103 passed the House with a large margin, but died in the Senate Corporations Committee — only to be revived by a special rules call.

In response to the new law, Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, wrote on Twitter that Democrats and independents should register as Republicans and get more involved.

“If Republican lawmakers want to suppress your right to vote in the election of your choosing, then gut their party votes of conservative committee seats,” Provenza said.

That wasn’t a stance Hunt or Yin said they’d advocate in Teton County.

“I wouldn’t encourage people to change parties,” Hunt said, “but they’re all going to do it if nothing changes.”

Some kind of crossover voting restriction has been on the agenda of far-right conservatives for several years, and Donald Trump endorsed similar Wyoming legislation in 2022.

At the central committee meeting for the Teton County GOP, some conservatives downplayed concerns.

“It’s not banning people from voting for a different party person,” said GOP Chairwoman Mary Martin. “Ultimately it is just making sure parties have the opportunity to work within their group to put their best candidates forward.”

Bob Culver, leader of the Jackson Hole Tea Party, said he saw how some could see the new law as “taking away liberty,” but stopped short of agreeing.

“The right to paint your house green is not a right,” Culver said, “and this is right down there with that.”

No data has suggested crossover voting has changed the outcome of statewide elections in the supermajority Republican state, said Jennifer Lowe, director of the nonpartisan Equality State Policy Center.

That’s the reason Lowe spent hours last session urging lawmakers to hold back on legislating a “non-issue” that would force people to put “party loyalty over candidate preferences.”

“In a state that is so small like this, you’re often voting for your neighbors, your friends, your kids’ teachers, not the Republican or the Democrat,” Lowe said.

No one who spoke with the News&Guide said they knew of legal challenges that might be brought against the law, though several said they thought it could be possible if the right aggrieved party found a lawyer.

As for the Democrats, independents and unaffiliated voters who make up more than 70% of Teton County, the effects of a new party affiliation restriction are as distant as the next general election, but spark new questions.

“My friends are definitely talking about just joining the Republican Party,” said former Democratic Party Chairwoman Marylee White. “Why continue to be [registered as] a Democrat? We have so little power.”

This story was published on Mar. 15, 2023.

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