CASPER, Wyo. — The Wyoming Senate unanimously passed Senate File 142 on third reading on Monday, March 22. The legislation aims to prohibit the state or local governments from accepting private funds to help cover costs of getting voters registered or to help pay for “preparing for, conducting or overseeing an election.”
The Senate amended the legislation ahead of their third reading vote to allow the secretary of state’s office to use donated private funds “for the explicit purpose of election training or education” and to allow meals and food to be donated to support election training or for poll workers or other staff on election day.
Sen. Drew Perkins (Natrona County) asked for an explanation of the bill as it relates to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case.
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In that case, the Supreme Court held that free speech under the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting spending on political communications by corporations and other entities.
Perkins said he understood that Senate File 142 was not an attempt to restrict spending on political speech and that he agreed that state and local governments should not accept money from organizations to support the cost of running elections if there is any condition that accepting that funding would be in exchange for changing any election law.
But he said there may be some positive instances in which private funding helps support “free and fair and open elections.” Perkins said that with funding tight around the state, funding which helps ensure polling locations can remain open or to ensure there are enough poll-watchers might be positive examples of how private funding can support elections.
Sen. Charles Scott (Natrona) said that he didn’t think the proposed legislation had anything to do with Citizens United.
“I don’t see how free speech is involved here,” he said. “The evil this bill is trying to prevent that we’ve seen in some other states is that large wealthy individuals have made contributions to the states in return for changing the rules under which the elections are conducted a bit. And that’s not free speech.”
“I don’t think that issue that is present in Citizens United is present at all in this bill.”
Sen. Bill Landen (Natrona) asked whether the bill might close the door on certain public/private partnerships aimed to educate the public about elections.
He questioned whether there is anything unacceptable about a private organization stepping in to cover the cost of something like sending every eligible voter in the state basic information about elections such as where and how to vote.
“What’s wrong with a sponsorship of some information that might do my constituents some good?” he asked.
Sen. Bo Biteman (Sheridan) said that he thinks all organizations have some type of agenda “especially when it comes to elections.” He said the legislation was an attempt to “make sure that those people with agendas stay out of our sacred elections processes and they can’t buy influence in how we handle and conduct our elections.”
House Minority Floor Leader Chris Rothfuss (Albany) said he didn’t see any evidence in the last election cycle of organizations donating money to help run elections in exchange for modified voting rules.
But he said he supports Senate File 142: “I just think this is good policy.”
Rothfuss said that he thinks it is government’s responsibility to hold free and fair elections. While the state may be in a tough spot in terms of revenues, he said this one of their primary responsibilities and they need to find ways to fund elections.
“We will not have free and fair elections if we cannot contribute and provide adequate resources to do so,” he said.
Sen. Troy McKeown (Campbell) noted that private organizations would still be able to send out mailers or other communications on their own, though the bill would prevent government entities from accepting money to help pay for efforts to inform the public regarding elections.
With the Senate voting 30-0 to pass Senate File 142 on third reading on Monday, the proposed legislation will move to the House for consideration.
The legislation is sponsored by:
- Senator(s) Steinmetz, Biteman and Nethercott
- Representative(s) Clausen and Hunt