Wyoming campaign finance law, or “campaign finance reform” if you prefer, is pointless and counterproductive. It has served as nothing more than a bundle of platitudes and a dirty political tool for more than a century, since the Republican Party unreasonably accused Democrat John Kendrick of violating the state’s original Corrupt Practices Act in 1916 when he ran (successfully) for the United States Senate. The last few election cycles have been no different, with the Wyoming Gun Owners facing a complaint from a political opponent and paying an unconstitutional $500 fine under a law recently struck down in federal court. WyGO got a bit of justice, but with the passage of House Bill 49 in the recent budget session of the Wyoming Legislature, campaign finance is sure to get worse.
Campaign finance law is nothing more than public accounting. Candidates and certain organizations called political action committees (PACs) report all of the contributions they receive and all of the money they spend on elections to the government, which makes the data publicly available. Other organizations only have to report certain contributions and expenditures that specifically tie to election advertisements. In Wyoming, the data for statewide and legislative races is provided by the Secretary of State in Wyoming’s Campaign Finance Information System (WYCFIS) at wycampaignfinance.gov, a website built with an appropriation of $2.5 million in 2008.
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Very few people use this website. One of the exceptions is journalists: public knowledge of Wyoming campaign finance is based almost entirely on what institutional press chooses to publish from the website. I’ll avoid the all-too-common canards about journalistic bias, but context is almost always absent from campaign finance stories. When a $1,500 contribution to a candidate is reported, for example, the same article almost never states whether the candidate has received similar contributions from other (less controversial) donors. What’s worse, the press seldom provides the web address for the context: according to a search of the paper’s archive, the term “wycampaignfinance.gov” appeared a total of three times in the print edition of the Casper Star-Tribune, the last time in 2016, until this article.
That said, context is unfortunately irrelevant in campaign finance. Campaign donations, whether a $200 contribution from the Wyoming Stock Growers Ag PAC or $1,500 from a rich left-wing, right-wing or centrist individual are certainly not “buying” a candidate or unduly influencing policy. Neither is a $1,600 radio ad from WyGO. That simplistic drivel usually plays well to the base of a candidate or cause, but the fact that it’s always a political opponent who’s in the pocket of an industry or individual while the ones making such claims are paragons of virtue who are not unduly influenced by those who fund them proves it’s just empty rhetoric.
But empty rhetoric is as old as politics. Obviously, it works: the true believers reading this article are assuring themselves that I don’t believe what I’m writing here and that I’m only saying this because of a briefcase full of cash I received in a parking deck in Arlington, Virginia last week. And I’m sure they thoroughly review WYCFIS every election cycle. Sure.
This brings us to HB49. Wyoming law will now punish late filings from candidates, PACs, and even groups that don’t have any campaign financing to report with fines of up to $500 per day. And now reports will be filed under penalty of perjury, threatening candidates and causes with felony charges over rudimentary accounting errors. This will do nothing to purify politics: instead, the worst politicos will continue to file complaints against their opponents, but now with sharper teeth. The newspapers will dutifully cover these complaints, giving more attention to a candidate’s or organization’s alleged malfeasance than what they stand for, which is exactly what their opponents have in mind. Finally, there will be loud calls for even more regulation when one group or another (possibly represented by a great Wyoming attorney and yours truly) successfully fights back.
If this is reform, Wyoming would do well with a lot less of it.
Steve Klein is a partner at the law firm Barr & Klein PLLC in Washington, DC and a lobbyist for the Wyoming Liberty Group. He is currently counsel in a lawsuit challenging Wyoming’s electioneering restrictions around polling places and is co-counsel to Wyoming Gun Owners in its successful suit challenging state campaign finance law.