A group of volunteers is seeking to make Wyoming the 20th state to call on Congress to pass a constitutional amendment banning corporations and unions from spending on political causes.
Wyoming Promise chair Ken Chestek said the organization has collected more than 6,000 of the nearly 39,000 needed to put an initiative on the ballot asking voters whether the Legislature should ask Congress to pass a constitutional amendment.
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The origin of both Wyoming Promise and the larger American Promise organization lies in the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Case Citizens United v. FEC, which found that political speech by corporations, labor unions and other associations is protected speech and that it is unconstitutional for Congress to restrict it.
While corporations had already spent money on political causes, Citizens United ended any ambiguity about the legality of doing so and led to an increase in the amount of so-called “dark money” spent in political campaigns.
Despite many of the organizers being Democrats, Chestek said Wyoming Promise is an explicitly non-partisan effort.
“We’re absolutely looking for voters from not just both parties, I’d say all parties,” he said. “We have significant numbers of Republicans who have signed.”
One of those Republicans is former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson, who explained his support in an August opinion article for the Star-Tribune.
“What right and privilege could be more important than one person-one vote: being able to stand up as an equal citizen to have your say in our political system, knowing that the game is not rigged?” Simpson wrote. “We should place Wyoming on the right side of this fight for the future of our democracy.”
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Chestek, a law professor at the University of Wyoming, ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a rural Laramie House seat. Chestek said that following President Donald Trump’s election last November, he connected with another UW professor on Facebook who was also concerned about the role of money in politics.
Chestek and visual art professor Shelby Shadwell worked with Rep. Mike Gierau, D-Jackson, to pass a resolution at the Legislature. When the bill failed, Chestek and Shadwell decided to pursue the initiative process which allows voters to approve legislation directly.
To secure ballot access, petitioners must collect signatures equivalent to 15 percent of the total turnout in the last general election — roughly 39,000 — as well as 15 percent of the total number of registered voters in most counties.
Wyoming Promise has until February to collect the required signatures in order to qualify for the ballot next November. Failing that, they can continue gathering signatures for another 10 months, and if they hit the necessary number the initiative will appear on the 2020 ballot.
Chestek said that removing corporate dollars from politics has widespread support both in Wyoming and across the country, but that gathering signatures has nonetheless been a challenge.
“The main struggle has been getting enough circulators on the street with petitions,” he said.
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“When the circulators are out there with petitions talking to people, eight out of 10 people sign.”
He said Wyoming Promise has roughly 200 volunteers collecting signatures across the state, including significant presences in Albany, Fremont, Laramie, Natrona and Sheridan counties.
“We’re very confident that we will get on the ballot at least by 2020,” Chestek said.