SHERIDAN — On Feb. 2, a half-dozen Republicans and Democrats sat around a table at The Sheridan Press to talk politics. Not one of the conversation’s participants hurled insults or cast aspersions. The six people around the table, while diverse in opinion and political conviction, all agreed on one thing — the need to change how money affects politics.
National initiative finds support in Wyoming
Supporters of Wyoming Promise, an affiliate of the national American Promise organization, have what they call a “simple mission,” though it will likely be anything but. They aim to gather enough support for a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would overturn the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision. The decision struck down campaign spending limits on corporations, stating that the restrictions limited free speech.
The result? Wyoming Promise supporters say the decision made some voices in politics louder than others, injuring the one-person, one-vote principle of American democracy. The more money a person — or corporation — can spend, the louder the voice in politicians’ ears.
“We shouldn’t have to pay for our right to express anything as a valid need,” said Laurie Goodman, who worked under former U.S. Sen Al Simpson and in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. “Whatever it may be, we shouldn’t equate the importance of the issue with the amount of money we gave.”
Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, sat among the group that gathered in early February to talk about Wyoming Promise.
He said the potential long-term impacts of the U.S. Supreme Court case, and therefore the changes that had to be made to Wyoming law, could be damaging.
In 2015, the Wyoming Legislature passed laws that repealed limits on certain kinds of campaign contributions. One bill repealed the limit on how much political action committees may spend to support candidates seeking statewide office and increased the contribution limit to $5,000 for all other candidates. Another piece of legislation repealed the total aggregate amount an individual can donate to political campaigns during an election.
The point, Madden said, is that Wyoming had campaign finance laws in place before the federal courts issued rulings calling them unconstitutional.
“I can already see in Wyoming how this has had some affect on things,” Madden said. “It will ultimately get to the point — not too many elections down the road — that people start saying, ‘What do I want to go vote for? I don’t have a voice anymore.’”
Madden isn’t the only Wyomingite working to change how money affects American politics. According to Wyoming Promise chair Ken Chestek, the organization grew from about three people to more than 270 volunteers and another 30-40 county team leaders and data managers over the last couple years.
Wyoming Promise organizers had hoped to get the issue on the ballot for the 2018 election but fell short. Now, proponents have set their sights on 2020. Titled “An Act to Promote Free and Fair Elections,” the ballot initiative could bring about a vote if it gathers 38,818 signatures by Nov. 15.
In Sheridan County, Kris Korfanta leads the Wyoming Promise efforts. She said more than 50 people in the county are carrying petitions and more than 1,000 signatures have been gathered so far. The goal is to gather approximately 4,000 signatures by the end of the summer.
Misconceptions across the aisle
Organizers of the Wyoming Promise initiative said one of the biggest misconceptions they come across when discussing the issue with the public is that money in politics is a partisan concern.
“To handle this, to process this, people have to put it on a party,” said Dick Shackelford, a Republican and local volunteer with the Wyoming Promise initiative. “It’s neither. It’s not partisan. It is individuals’ ability to affect their government.”
The proof could be seen in the group that sat down with The Press to discuss the initiative.
“We certainly don’t check our political affiliations at the door,” Korfanta said. “But we are a cross-section of all parties, and we’re talking and problem solving and learning from each other. I think that’s improving our community.”
Another misconception — or concern — is that amending the U.S. Constitution is a big deal.
While most in Wyoming Promise agree, many advocate that the action is overdue. Amendments have been made to the U.S. Constitution throughout the country’s history, the most recent of which came in 1992. A total of 12 amendments were ratified in the 20th century.
Because politicians are wrapped up in the system — playing by the rules dictated to them by the courts, the local Wyoming Promise proponents said — change on campaign finance issues will not come from legislative action. Those candidates or elected officials who do speak about the need for campaign finance reform often find themselves the target of organizations against it.
“We’re overdue for an adjustment and things are changing so fast,” said Sarah Mentock, a registered Republican who called herself a fiscal conservative but social liberal.
The petition, which would get the issue on the ballot if enough signatures from registered voters are gathered, is an easy first step to addressing the problem and has recruited advocates who haven’t been involved in politics in the past.
“I’ve been a Republican just as often as I’ve been a Democrat,” said Pat Brackely. “I don’t consider myself politically astute, but people I admire started talking about this… it’s such an easy step to take. Money has muddied our system, and this will not correct everything, but it’s an easy step forward that we all can take.”
Wyoming Promise supporters said they plan to set up shop outside some downtown locations — such as the post office — as the weather becomes warmer. They also have multiple events planned to discuss the issue and its purpose with local residents. To learn more, stop by the event Thursday at The Hub on Smith beginning at 5:30 p.m. or keep an eye out for information on a May event the group is planning with Simpson.