Wyoming seemed poised earlier this year to join the parade of conservative states who have enacted restrictive, undemocratic voter identification laws.
The fact that the Equality State has thus far decided not to go down this perilous path is a political wonder. The House last session came within one vote of passing HB192 – Voter Fraud Prevention sponsored by Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper).
But last week in Jackson, the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee voted 14-2 against another bill promoted by Gray, who has argued that a voter ID law will keep people from committing voter fraud.
I understand the appeal of that claim. People are routinely asked to present ID cards at the airport and the convenience store, so clearly everyone has a photo ID. What’s the big deal?
But they don’t. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 11% of U.S. citizens — more than 21 million Americans — do not have government-issued photo identification.
“Voter ID laws deprive many voters of their right to vote, reduce participation, and stand in direct opposition to our country’s trend of including more Americans in the democratic process,” maintains the American Civil Liberties Union, which has prepared a fact sheet on the issue.
A government-issued ID card may be free, but obtaining the required documentation to get one, such as a birth certificate, often costs money and represents a significant expense for low-income citizens. A Harvard Law School study estimated that the combined cost of document fees, travel expenses and waiting time range from $75 to $175.
In rural states like Wyoming, the travel required is often a major burden for people without vehicles or access to public transportation.
Voter ID laws particularly disenfranchise the elderly. Tom Lacock of Wyoming’s AARP made that point in dramatic fashion during the Jackson meeting. He provided each member of the committee with voter turnout statistics for each of their individual districts showing the high proportion of senior citizens in the state who vote.
Testimony during the last session also indicated that many Wind River Indian Reservation tribal members face problems obtaining photo IDs.
Remember the 2016 presidential election, when President Donald Trump tried to blame the fact that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 3 million votes on rampant voter fraud?
The truth is, voter fraud is extremely rare nationally and essentially nonexistent in Wyoming. Justin Leavitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, found that there were only 31 credible allegations of voter impersonation – the only type of fraud that photo ID laws could prevent – since 2000. During that period more than 1 billion ballots were cast.
During the House debate on Gray’s bill, Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance) said there were no cases of voter fraud in Wyoming elections in 2018 because “our system is working.” The secretary of state’s office and county clerks, he said, already know how to verify if a person is registered to vote and eligible to receive a ballot.
“This is a solution in search of a problem,” Lindholm said. It is indeed.
The corporations committee’s 9-5 rejection of a bill to ban “crossover” voting in primary elections — the No. 1 priority of the Wyoming Republican Party at this year’s legislative session — was also a good decision that helps preserve our democratic process.
Many conservative Republicans charge that Democrats helped “steal” the 2018 GOP gubernatorial nomination from Jackson billionaire Foster Friess by switching their party affiliation at the primary polls. Their theory is Democrats did so because they wanted to ensure the victory of a more moderate Republican, Mark Gordon, who went on to overwhelmingly win the general election.
During the session two versions of the crossover voting bill failed in a Senate committee before leaders of the chamber allowed a third version that made it through the Senate.
The House killed that bill but offered its own measure, which was heavily amended by the Senate Agriculture Committee, an unlikely panel to make decisions on election bills. It landed there because Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) knew the panel would pass it and send the bill to the full Senate.
But the Ag Committee added a voter ID requirement and would have set a deadline of May 1 for anyone who wanted to switch party affiliations for the primary. That means voters wouldn’t even know which candidates filed for contests before they would have to make a party choice.
Those restrictions were too much even for the Senate, which defeated the final bill.
At the recent corporations committee meeting, Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) warned that the latest version of the bill might violate the First Amendment. He also said the measure contained a loophole that would allow voters to “unregister” to vote, then re-register with another party on the day of the primary.
The silliest part of the whole crossover controversy is that the Friess camp’s charge that Democrats took the election away from him is patently untrue. Friess finished more than 9,000 votes behind Gordon, and only 6,000 Democrats changed their party for the primary.
The real reason Friess lost is because he and Cheyenne attorney Harriet Hageman split the conservative vote. He topped her by about 4,800 votes. The only way he could have potentially won even with crossover voting taken out of the equation is if Hageman wasn’t in the race, and there was no way she would have ever dropped out and handed the nomination to Friess.
What I like most about Wyoming legislators’ decision to reject anti-democratic changes to the state’s election laws is that a coalition of conservative and moderate Republicans in both chambers killed them. Sen. Charlie Scott (R-Casper), one of the prime opponents, argued that changing the primary registration deadline would effectively keep people from voting for the candidates they choose.
“At least in my district, we get a fair amount of turnover —people moving in and out of state who might not be familiar with the parties, and may not declare one,” Scott said. “This would prevent them from voting in the primary. That’s a mistake and will offend people who quite rightly feel they would be left out.”
Gray and the GOP won’t give up their efforts to pass these bills. But fortunately, for now, the march to join other red states in keeping many residents from exercising their voting rights has stalled.