North Carolina makes case against “tough” enforcement of campaign finance laws

Much has been said (demanded, even) recently regarding the subject of the Federal Election Commission and their enforcement of campaign finance laws. So-called campaign finance “reformers” demand that the FEC act swifter and more decisively, not to mention more severely, to punish transgressions from their interpretation of campaign finance laws. Laws, it might be noted, that they generally think too weak to begin with and regularly urge be tightened to squeeze any unregulated political speech out of the public square.

For our part, we at the Center for Competitive Politics note that there is often great ambiguity in campaign finance laws, and even those attempting to comply with limits and regulations on money in politics can find the requirements not only burdensome, but also confusing. Severe, swift and decisive action by the Federal Election Commission is sure to punish many who fall afoul of campaign finance laws not through deceit or even carelessness, but through confusion.

Yesterday in the News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina featured a report by Justin Martin, a PhD candidate in journalism at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, on just how challenging it apparently can be to properly fill out campaign finance forms. From the story:

Combing through campaign finance data is sometimes like sorting through the Soviet archives; the more you dig, the more you realize how many things went wrong.

…By my calculations, 23 representatives, nearly one in five, filed campaign expenditure forms for the 2007-2008 election cycle that were off by more than $1,000.

Several of the incorrect were off by substantial sums:

The total expenditures for Melanie Wade Goodwin (D-Montgomery/Richmond) for the 2007-08 election cycle, for example, were underreported by about $23,000. The election-cycle total of Beverly Earle (D-Mecklenburg) appears off by about $49,000.

…Goodwin… chairs the House Campaign Finance Reform committee…

Much of the problems apparently revolved around confusion over which periods were supposed to be included in the end-of-year reports. Martin writes:

In most cases, errors appear because of a lack of understanding of what should be summed at the end of an election cycle. Evidently, a number of legislators were under the impression that only 2008 expenditures — not those from the entire 2007-08 election cycle — needed to be reported at the end of last year. In fact, most of the reporting errors I found were the result of lawmakers’ not including their 2007 expenditures in their 2007-08 totals.

… Reporting forms distributed by the board, which regulates the state’s campaign finance activity, are less than clear, causing some representatives to misinterpret what period of time constitutes an election cycle and what figures they should report at year’s end.

This confusion led James Langdon (R-Johnston/Sampson) to list only 2008 expenditures for his 2007-2008 election-cycle total, resulting in a discrepancy of about $2,900. Langdon argued that the form he’s required to file at the end of an election cycle is rather confusing. I agree, and, honestly, if I were a state legislator, I might’ve made the same mistake he did. Other representatives argue that the online reporting system the Board of Elections has offered in recent years is riddled with problems.

The difficulty that many North Carolina state legislators seem to have in accurately filling out their campaign finance reports (apparently innocently – Martin makes clear in his report that he believes they attempted to comply with the law, and he is almost certainly right) should serve as a cautionary note for those urging severe and swift punishment for any violation of campaign finance laws.

After all, if those in charge of voting on the laws and in one case overseeing the committee reponsible for campaign finance laws have difficulty complying, how daunting must the laws seem to political outsiders without the resources of candidates and established committees? And more important, how chilling a message would it send to those without ready access to a Adam Bonin or Jan Baran or similar high-powered campaign finance attorney if they saw average citizens facing severe penalties for failing to figure out how to jump through the appropriate hoops?