A group of Wyomingites is pushing for campaign finance reform in the state and nationally through a ballot initiative – including a former legislative candidate who believes a liberal dark money group that supported him actually interfered in his race.
Wyoming Promise members want an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would repeal a number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have loosened limits on how much people and groups spend in races. One decision is Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, in which justices decided corporate and union political action committees could raise and spend an unlimited amount of money for and against candidates, as long as the PACs work independently of candidates, said Shelby Shadwell of Laramie, Wyoming Promise’s treasurer.
On Monday, the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office announced that Wyoming Promise could begin the process of collecting signatures from the state’s residents to get an initiative on the ballot. It must collect at least 38,818 signatures, a number based on a percentage of votes cast in the 2016 general election.
The organization hopes to get the initiative on the November 2018 ballot and has 18 months to collect signatures. If members don’t gather enough names before the 2018 election, the initiative still has a chance for the 2020 ballot, Shadwell said.
Wyoming Promise is mirroring the goals of American Promise, on which former Republican U.S. Sen. Al Simpson serves as an adviser, Shadwell said.
Wyoming Promise and others believe the rich and powerful have more control over politicians than ordinary people because of the amount of money they spend on their campaigns, Shadwell said.
“We need to end legalized bribery and regulate and have campaign finance reform,” he said.
The chairman of Wyoming Promise is Kenneth Chestek, of Laramie, who ran for the Legislature in 2016 as a Democrat against Rep. Bill Haley, R-Centennial.
The Wyoming Hunters and Anglers Alliance sent mail to residents in House District 46 accusing Haley of wanting the federal government to turn public lands over to the state for selloff to private people and companies.
Chestek, a law professor at the University of Wyoming, said the mailings were upsetting to him. He didn’t agree with them, he said.
“That’s part of why I’m involved in this effort,” he said. “I’ve always hated the Citizens United decision. When it impacted my race for the Legislature, it got me upset enough to take this action.”
Amending the U.S. Constitution is the only way the state Legislatures and Congress can reform campaign finance laws, he said.
The identities of the people backing the hunters’ group are not entirely known. Such groups on the left and right are called dark money.
If the initiative makes it to the ballot box, a statement will say the U.S. Constitution needs an amendment to ensure spending in Wyoming and at the federal level is free and fair.
Based “on the American values of fair play, leveling the playing field and ensuring that all citizens, regardless of wealth, have an opportunity for their political views to be heard, there is a compelling reason to regulate political spending so that the voices of natural persons are not overwhelmed by corporate spending,” the proposed initiative states.
There are two ways to amend the Constitution, Shadwell said.
Congress can propose an amendment that voters in at least three-fourths of the states can ratify. Or two-thirds of the states can pass ballot measures calling for a constitutional convention in which representatives of each state meet to draft an amendment. The states would have to ratify the amendment, Shadwell said.
Eighteen states thus far have passed resolutions calling on Congress to draft the amendment to regulate political spending.
About five have called for a Constitutional convention, he said.
Wyoming Promise’s proposed initiative states either way of amending the Constitution is suitable, Shadwell said.
The Wyoming group, as with the national organization, aims to be bipartisan, he said.
“A 28th amendment to the Constitution is the only way to overturn the (Citizens United) decision,” he said. “We can’t limit the amount of dark money and unlimited political spending in the system, which is a huge problem no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on. Republicans don’t like it. Democrats don’t like their politicians being bought off, either.”
Follow political reporter Laura Hancock on Twitter @laurahancock