Wyoming was the last state in the nation to require candidates to report on campaign contributions before election day.
The 2003 move was a step in the right direction, to be sure, but we still have a long way to go toward adequate transparency in our elections. One big loophole, for example, enables candidates for state and local offices to hide significant campaign donations until after voters have cast their ballots.
Here’s Wyoming’s loophole: all candidates for state and local office must file a pre-election report that details all campaign contributions above $25. The report covers the period up to 14 days before an election and must be filed by 10 days before election day. That leaves a 4-day window between “closing the books” and the filing deadline, during which donations received will remain effectively invisible until after the election is decided. You’d be amazed at what percentage of donations happen to arrive in that window.
There’s no excuse for allowing such secrecy.
“Our campaign finance information isn’t very accessible to voters, especially [with] it not being accurate right before election day,” said Phoebe Stoner, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, a coalition of organizations that advocates for government transparency and fair elections.
“Let’s say I’m a candidate and I get two or three $500 donations from people [whose] optics may not be that great if people knew they were donating to my campaign,” Stoner said. “If candidates are even slightly savvy, then they can manipulate that [information] and hold off getting those donations until after the filing deadline,” the ESPC director explained. “So there’s no way for voters to know that [contribution] happened until after the election, when candidates have 10 more days to file all of their donations.”
How can this loophole be closed? House Bill 67, a package of campaign finance reform measures introduced last session, would have done the trick. The measure included a provision to require candidates to file a “rolling report” — listing any donation of more than $250 within 24 hours of receiving it.
Sure, such a requirement wouldn’t cause a spike in voters searching for statewide campaign donations on the Secretary of State’s elections website, but it would at least make the information they’re entitled to available to them before casting a ballot. A rolling report would also allow enterprising reporters to comb the data and report anything that raises eyebrows. That way voters can determine for themselves if and how money may be influencing a candidate and they can incorporate that information into their decision making.
The current system makes comparing campaign finances a joke. For example, reports on the crowded governor’s race lag so far behind the timing of the contributions that the information is virtually meaningless during most of the campaign.
A May 3 article in the Casper Star-Tribune reported that Democratic candidate Mary Thorne raised the most money in 2017 at $185,643. Republicans Harriet Hageman and Bill Dahlin were next, with $112,215 and $60,770 respectively.
But Taylor Haynes and Rex Rammell, two other GOP candidates who announced bids for governor in 2017 didn’t file any reports for the entire year. The rest of the Republican field — Mark Gordon, Sam Galeotos and Foster Friess — didn’t enter the race this year and haven’t filed any 2018 donations yet.
Under the state’s incredibly loose campaign finance disclosure laws, none of the candidates will have to show their cards until they file their pre-election report on Aug. 14, seven days before the primary. At that point the proverbial horse will have long since left the barn.
You would think that Wyoming politicians — fond as they are of limited and accountable government — would be all for closing the loophole. Indeed HB-67 had a lot of momentum going for it when the Joint Interim Corporations Committee met last September, according to Stoner. But that support had dried up by the panel’s November session in Sundance.
The conservative Wyoming Liberty Group largely set the tone of the HB-67 debate. They took exception to a separate provision that would have required organizations lobbying for or against a political issue to report their donations, much like a political action committee. The Liberty Group maintained that organizations like theirs could be entangled in a regulatory net simply for stating a position on an issue in a blog, and that such free speech shouldn’t have to be encumbered by financial reporting requirements.
An amended version of HB-67 was approved 6-3 by the House Corporations Committee but the bill died when it missed the deadline to be considered by the entire House. Along with its defeat went the proposed provision requiring candidates to report major donations up until the day before the elections.
Stoner said the ESPC will again lobby for a similar bill when the Joint Corporations Committee meets in Thermopolis on Sept. 18-19.
“Wyoming has fallen to the bottom of the barrel for our campaign finance disclosure statutes,” Stoner noted. “Basically we’ve failed every analysis and study that’s ever been done comparing states side by side.”
The Center for Public Integrity gave Wyoming an “F” in its most recent State Integrity Investigation in November 2015. The state ranked 50th in public access to information and 48th in political financing disclosure.
“On the elections front, Wyoming does not routinely audit campaign finance reports, nor provide for an entity to independently initiate investigations into allegations of elections fraud,” the report stated. “Candidates aren’t banned from spending campaign funds for personal purposes.”
Stoner said more than 30 other states have identified and solved some of these problems by requiring rolling reports of donations. There’s no need for Wyoming to reinvent the wheel.
“I see these small opportunities to make improvements,” the ESPC director said. “Improvements that other states are doing that are not onerous in any way. The Corporations Committee just doesn’t seem to have an appetite for it.”
Wyoming candidates don’t have to wait for a law change. Aspiring electeds could take the lead on this issue by volunteering to list their donations of $250 or more within 24 hours of getting the contribution. Doing so would demonstrate both leadership and integrity while showing the state it’s not a difficult task and improves election transparency.
Whether a candidate rises to the challenge, the Legislature should put campaign finance reform it on the to-do list for 2019. Making progress should be easily achievable in a state with so much ground to make up in its campaign donation disclosure laws.