Klein: More fines and jail time won’t reform Wyoming’s campaign finance | Columns
Wyoming’s campaign finance law, or “campaign finance reform” if you will, is unnecessary and counterproductive. It has served as nothing more than a pack of platitudes and a dirty political tool for more than a century, since the Republican Party unreasonably accused Democrat John Kendrick of violating the original law. of the state on corrupt practices in 1916 when he presented himself (successfully) in the United States. State Senate. Recent election cycles have been no different, with Wyoming gun owners facing a lawsuit from a political opponent and paying an unconstitutional $500 fine under a law recently struck down in federal court. WyGO got some 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 some organizations called political action committees (PACs) report all the contributions they receive and all the money they spend on government elections, making the data publicly available. Other organizations only have to report certain contributions and expenses specifically related to election advertising. In Wyoming, data for statewide and legislative races is provided by the Wyoming Secretary of State’s Campaign Finance Information System (WYCFIS) at wycampaignfinance.gova website built with a credit of $2.5 million in 2008.
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Very few people use this site. One of the exceptions is for journalists: public knowledge of Wyoming’s campaign finance rests almost entirely on what the corporate press chooses to publish on the website. I’ll avoid the all-too-common ducks about journalistic bias, but context is almost always missing from campaign finance stories. When a $1,500 contribution to a candidate is reported, for example, the same article almost never indicates whether the candidate has received similar contributions from other (less controversial) donors. Worse still, the press rarely provides the context web address: according to a search of the newspaper’s archives, 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 it’s a $200 contribution from the Wyoming Stock Growers Ag PAC or $1,500 from a wealthy individual on the left, right, or centrist, certainly don’t “buy” a candidate or improperly influence politics. Neither is a $1,600 radio ad from WyGO. This simplistic drivel usually plays well on the basis of a candidate or a cause, but the fact that it is always a political opponent who is in the pocket of an industry or an individual while those who make such claims are paragons of virtue that are not unduly influenced by those who fund them proves that this is just empty rhetoric.
But hollow rhetoric is as old as politics. Of course it works: true believers reading this article make sure 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 lot in Arlington, Virginia last week. And I’m sure they scrutinize WYCFIS every election cycle. Sure.
This brings us to HB49. Wyoming law will now punish late filings from candidates, PACs and even groups who have no campaign finance to report with fines of up to $500 per day. And now reports will be filed under penalty of perjury, threatening applicants and causes with felony charges for gross accounting errors. This will in no way purify politics: instead, the worst politicians will continue to press charges against their opponents, but now with sharper teeth. Newspapers will dutifully cover these complaints, paying more attention to the alleged wrongdoings of a candidate or organization than to 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 top Wyoming attorney and yours) successfully defends itself.
If this is reform, Wyoming would be fine with a lot less.
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 serving as an attorney in a lawsuit challenging Wyoming’s election restrictions around polling places and is co-counsel for Wyoming’s gun owners in its successful lawsuit challenging the state’s campaign finance law.