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Election Day 2016

Voters fill out their ballots in November 2016 at the Evansville Community Center. 

On Thursday, a new attack ad against GOP governor candidates Mark Gordon and Sam Galeotos hit the airwaves.

Sourced to a group called the Sensible Solutions Coalition, the group has no listing with the state of Wyoming nor with the Federal Elections Commission. Yet, despite laws in place meant to track this type of electioneering, no information was publicly available to find out who the ads were meant to help or who the group’s financial backers were, nor was there any way to divine some sort of strategic motivation behind the ads.

In tracking the origin of attack ads in Wyoming, you don’t have far to go before the trail you’re following goes cold. Searching for the Sensible Solutions Coalition on the Wyoming campaign finance website yields no results, as new political action committees — or PACs — are not required to announce their presence. You won’t find any information on the group filed with the secretary of state either, as groups incorporated outside of the state are exempt from oversight in the final month of an election.

If you do find out anything about a group, typically through a filing with the Federal Elections Commission or a state with tighter campaign finance laws, you’ll often notice very quickly that the group you are researching shares a treasurer with numerous other PACs under their purview, oftentimes with an address that leads you to a UPS store in another state.

Investigating the PACs in this year’s statewide race, you find similar stories — and numerous loopholes exploited — that allow campaigns to potentially operate in the shadows, with no means for private citizens or the media to track the interests behind them.

How it happens

Sensible Solutions Coalition, whose only other operations took place in the final days of the 2016 election in New Hampshire, were not recorded with their secretary of state’s office, simply because registration with the state board of elections is not mandatory there. That PAC listed a P.O. box in Manchester, New Hampshire, as its address on various mailers and, with no records with the state to follow, it was impossible to find out who was behind the organization or the group’s motivations in attempting to affect the vote.

With their presence essentially hidden in New Hampshire, the group could conceivably proceed with its activities unabated in other states, assuming the laws are favorable there. Wyoming, it turns out, is one of those states that allows out-of-state groups to easily interlope in its elections.

Earlier this month, another group, Protecting Our Constitution, appeared in Wyoming, distributing mailers disparaging Galeotos and Gordon. While PACs in Wyoming are required to register with the state, this one – based in Colorado – has room to hide its activities while actively engaging in the state’s gubernatorial race, as Wyoming only requires a report of contributions in the pre-primary reporting period.

Though its mailers list a Wyoming address — at 30 N. Gould St. in Sheridan — a building that sits empty, acts as a mail-forwarding address for numerous LLCs, all incorporated anonymously through the same third-party agent, including an India-based computer consulting firm and an agricultural products seller, to name a few. The PAC also has no actual, physical presence in the state — necessary for registration — and the duration of its remote activities in-state is not in excess of 30 days, which would also require the PAC to register as a Wyoming PAC.

Though Protecting Our Constitution is a registered PAC with the FEC, and is therefore subject to federal reporting requirements, it will be impossible for Wyoming voters to know who donated money to the PAC before a winner of the GOP primary is decided Tuesday. The first reports for PACs are not due until October, and the 24-hour notices of expenditures by those PACs are only required for federal races. Furthermore, the PAC only has to disclose whether it is supporting a candidate in its electioneering, or if it is opposing a candidate.

The answer to that, with targeted ads against Gordon and Galeotos, is already clear.

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Lack of transparency

Wyoming has a reputation of lacking transparency, particularly around campaign finances. According to a 2015 investigation by the Center For Public Integrity, an investigative journalism outlet based in Washington, D.C., the state ranked 48th and 40th in political finance and electoral oversight transparency, respectively, and has some of the nation’s least restrictive laws on spending. Though there are contribution limits in place to individual candidates, PACs can spend unlimited amounts of funding on electioneering communications within the state.

Though that spending can be tracked in the week leading up to the election, if the PAC is registered in the state – albeit, 10 days after the election is over – PACs out of state do not have to disclose their spending with the Wyoming board of elections.

Conceivably, they would have to report their expenses to their home states. But with no registration requirement in New Hampshire, it is impossible to track the activities of the Sensible Solutions Coalition if no paper trail has been established. In the case of Protecting Our Constitution, its status as a federal PAC leaves it outside of the jurisdiction of Wyoming and Colorado, where campaign finance laws are highly restrictive.

In short, the lack of concrete laws around campaign finance in Wyoming leave the out-of-state PACs subject to little, if any, oversight in their activities here.

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Follow politics reporter Nick Reynolds on Twitter @IAmNickReynolds

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