Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Supreme Court, Citizens United and Wyoming

Senate committee shows commitment to honest elections

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission means we’re stuck with the prospect of corporate interests pouring money into state and national elections. It doesn’t matter if you believe that the right to free speech was meant for people who breathe and bleed. The corporations are free to use the biggest megaphone and can buy the most speech through independent expenditures in elections that affect their corporate interests.

Nevertheless, the state still has the authority to force disclosure of who finances that megaphone and who buys the time.

Today, the Senate Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee amended SF 3: Campaign finance – organizations, to help ensure that voters and candidates will know who paid for campaign literature and advertising.

The Senate bill brings state campaign finance law into compliance with the Citizens United decision by expressly allowing corporations, unions and other organizations to make “independent expenditures” directly from their treasuries. These expenditures can be made for or against candidates or ballot measures.

Under current Wyoming law, only candidates, political parties, candidate campaign committees, and political action committees (PACs) can spend money in elections. A corporate PAC is different from the corporation spending corporate funds because a PAC’s money comes from identifiable and publicly disclosed officers, directors and shareholders of the corporation.

The ESPC feared that SF3 would allow organizations to create fake front groups whose names would be put on campaign mailings and advertisements, leaving voters and candidates in the dark about who is paying for the independent expenditure campaign.

The committee approved an amendment offered by Sen. John Hines (R-S23, Gillette) to require that campaign literature or advertising made and paid for by independent expenditures carry the names and telephone numbers of the three largest contributors to the organization making the expenditure. The amendment was modeled after Arizona’s law.

While the requirement is not as complete as the reporting required of political parties or candidate campaign committees, its advantage is that it immediately informs the public of the main interests behind an ad paid for by independent expenditures. Voters then can interpret that information as they see fit.

The dangers of hybrids - election districts, that is

Following the discussion of election spending, the committee took up Senate File 14: Counties – election districts. The ESPC opposed this bill and it barely cleared the committee on a 3-2 vote.

Currently, when creating districts for the purpose of electing county commissioners, Wyoming law allows only the creation of single-member districts. SF 14 allows the creation of “hybrid” districts, meaning there may be a combination of single-member and at-large districts.

Only one county – Fremont – has districting for election of county commissioners, as the result of a Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought by members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. Last spring, a federal district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who argued that the at-large system of electing county commissioners was discriminatory because it illegally diluted the Native American vote.

Committee Chairman Cale Case (R-SD25, Lander), consistently has argued the bill is not meant to address the situation in Fremont County, because it would apply to all counties, and no new system can go into effect before 2012 in any case. He noted Fremont County was holding a special election today, in compliance with the federal court order, to elect county commissioners.

The ESPC opposed the bill because when it was discussed in the 2010 interim, proponents of the hybrid system suggested that a county could create one district that would give a minority population or other population of interest a good chance to elect one of its own members as a commissioner, but then elect all other commissioners at-large – and not let the residents of the single-member district vote in the at-large district.

Such an approach would serve only to further isolate a minority population from the rest of the county’s residents. The ESPC believes the community should follow a process that allows everyone to move forward together, without what could be termed a “political quarantine” of the minority group.

Sen. Wayne Johnson (R-SD 6, Cheyenne) commented in the committee meeting that human nature would lead ultimately to discriminatory use of the hybrid districting alternatives. Johnson and Sen. Marty Martin (D-SD 12, Superior) opposed the bill.

Chairman Case, Sen. John Hines (R-SD 23, Gillette), and Sen. Charles Scott (R-SD 30, Casper) voted for the bill.