Wyoming law lays out some pretty scary-sounding penalties for political candidates who fail to disclose how their campaign was funded and how they spent their money; there are potential fines, fees and even the possibility of being barred from office for neglecting to turn in their required campaign finance reports.
But the law’s bark is a whole lot worse than its bite. In fact, if the state statutes are meant to serve as a kind of watchdog, they appear largely toothless.
Consider that now — roughly six months since the end of the 2016 campaign — roughly a dozen people who ran for the State Legislature are still missing reports.
In all but a couple instances, the laggards are losing candidates who filed some documentation before their elections, but never turned in their final reports after they were defeated. That’s a relatively minor infraction — after all, a post-election report doesn’t do voters as much good as data filed before the election — but it’s an infraction nonetheless.
In March, the Powell Tribune highlighted a more egregious violation of the reporting requirements: Rep. Scott Court, R-Cody — a winning candidate — had failed to file any of his four required finance reports.
Court turned in the required information, detailing his relatively inexpensive campaign, shortly after the Tribune’s story was published; the freshman lawmaker said he appreciated being called out on the missing reports and that he wasn’t aware they needed to be turned in.
While taking responsibility for the oversight, Court also said no one from the Secretary of State’s Office — which collects the reports — ever reached out to him while he was serving in the state House in Cheyenne.
“It seems like it’s kind of a loose situation where nobody’s really cracking down on people not getting the reports in,” Court said.
When a state candidate fails to file a report, the Secretary of State’s Office has said it emails a reminder and turns those candidates’ names over to the Wyoming Attorney General.
It’s anyone’s guess as to what, if anything, happens after that. Wyoming Attorney General Peter Michael — an appointee of Gov. Matt Mead — did not respond to five inquiries from the Tribune between December and March about what his office does with those names from the Secretary of State.
The issue is that failing to penalize or even prod candidates who skip their reports is unfair to the vast majority of candidates who do make the time to fill out the forms each cycle.
It’s also unfair to the public.
Campaign finance reports are intended to give voters a better understanding of the political process: Who paid for that nasty mailing or radio ad? How much money did a candidate get? Did they buy their yard signs locally or out-of-state? It’s fairly common for reports to reveal that, while money helps, it’s no guarantee of success. And that’s all information that people can choose to use or ignore at the polls.
What makes the lack of enforcement harder to swallow is that getting candidates to file reports is not an impossible task.
Political candidates in Wyoming tend to be straightforward folks like Rep. Court, who believe in transparency and in doing things above board; they just forgot or overlooked a form.
Park County had dozens of local races and, according to the county clerk’s office, all of those candidates turned in their reports — sometimes after a little prodding by email or a phone call from clerk’s staff.
Some prodding by the state would almost certainly go a long way toward getting compliance.
As one example of an easy step that could help pressure tardy filers, the Secretary of State’s Office could post its list of missing reports online, for anyone to easily see. That would be a welcome addition to the Secretary of State’s useful campaign finance hub, www.wycampaignfinance.gov.
To the credit of the Secretary of State’s Office and State Election Director Kai Schon, they’ve recognized the current problems with enforcement and asked some of the same questions we’re asking here.
We’re also thankful that the Legislature’s Joint Corporations and Elections Committee picked campaign finance reporting and oversight as a topic to study between now and the 2018 Budget Session. The committee will have its first meeting of the year next week, May 18-19, in Laramie.
There’s no need for lawmakers to create a draconian system that hammers candidates for being a day late or a dollar short with their campaign finance reports. But some kind of enforcement is needed to ensure a level playing field for candidates and voters alike.