Wyoming Promise questions initiative requirements

By Michael Illiano

The Sheridan Press

Via Wyoming News Exchange

SHERIDAN — The task before Wyoming Promise, and the national American Promise campaign with which the group is affiliated, was never going to be easy; the end goal is to amend the U.S. Constitution and overturn a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

But local members of Wyoming Promise are questioning whether the conditions they have to meet in order to get their concerns on the state ballot are reasonable, or even achievable.

The group is currently circulating a petition that would initiate a question on the 2020 ballot asking Wyoming voters if they support a constitutional amendment that would overturn the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which eliminated campaign spending restrictions on corporations, declaring that the limits hindered free speech. If 38 states request the amendment, they could call a constitutional convention and ratify an amendment to the constitution that would overturn Citizens United.

In order for Wyoming to join other states in calling for the constitutional amendment, though, Wyoming Promise will need to submit a petition with at least 38,818 valid signatures to the Wyoming Secretary of State by Nov. 15. That petition would place the issue on the 2020 ballot, where it would have to be approved by an absolute majority of voters, meaning more than 50 percent of all of voters who participate in that election.

With only a couple months to go, Kris Korfanta, who is Wyoming Promise’s Sheridan County team leader, and Stacy Page, the secretary of the local chapter, estimated Wyoming Promise is one-third of the way to its goal and said part of the reason progress has been slow is that Wyoming’s requirements for citizens’ initiatives, which is the process that allows citizens to force a public vote, are demanding.

The 38,818 signatures required to get the issue on the ballot represent 15 percent of the number of voters who participated in the last general election. In addition to that overall mark, though, the group also needs to collect signatures equal to at least 15 percent of the registered voters in a county in two-thirds of the counties in the state.

Rep. Mike Madden, R-Buffalo, said the 15 percent requirement is already high compared to other states and requiring those signatures to be distributed among the counties is an unusual stipulation.

“It’s a high hurdle,” Madden said. “All I can say is, when you compare us to other states, we’re probably the most difficult to get something initiated.”

Of the nearby states that allow citizens’ initiatives — only 27 states and Washington, D.C. permit residents to initiate referendums — Wyoming has the highest threshold to put an issue on the ballot.

In Colorado, petitions need signatures that amount to 5 percent of the total number of votes cast for the Colorado secretary of state in the last general election to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. In Montana, petitions need signatures equal to 10 percent of the vote cast in the last gubernatorial race. South Dakota also requires 10 percent of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election.

The right to a citizens’ initiative was established in Wyoming in 1968, but according to Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan website that collects data on local, state and federal politics, 1992 was the first year citizens initiatives made it onto the state ballot. There were three initiated state statutes on the ballot that year, three in 1994 and one in 1996.

In 1997, the Wyoming Legislature raised the requirements for citizens’ initiatives to get on the ballot. The overall number of signatures required did not change, but it instituted the requirement that signatures be distributed across counties.

Since that amendment was ratified in 1998, no citizens’ initiative has qualified for the ballot.

Jim King, a political science professor at the University of Wyoming, agreed that getting an initiative on the ballot in Wyoming is more difficult than it is in other states. He added, however, that whether the process is working properly is a matter of philosophy.

“The whole point of the initiative process was to allow citizens to write legislation when the state Legislature did not act,” King said. “It’s a value judgement whether the point is to make it easy to get the Legislature to act or whether to make it difficult to respect representative democracy.”

Ultimately, it will be up to Wyoming residents to evaluate the state’s citizens’ initiative process and decide whether it is serving their interests.