2010-07-28 / Opinion

Outstanding Debts: Failure To Collect Fines For Violating Election Rules Invites Scofflaw Behavior

Other Editors Say...

Things have changed since last year, when the Ohio Elections Commission had a $31.7 million backlog of unpaid fines and The Dispatch urged the commission to work with the state attorney general office to get serious about the issue.

Now, the backlog has grown– to more than $33.2 million.

What a disappointing non-response to a problem that costs the state a muchneeded influx of money and undermines respect for election laws.

Richard Cordray, attorney general, blames the Elections Commission, which, he said, moves far too slowly in assessing fines and, when the fines aren’t paid promptly, in referring the cases to his office for prosecution.

Philip C. Richter, executive director of the commission, acknowledged that uncollected fines don’t get turned over to Cordray’s offi ce quickly and said he’s “willing to work with and listen to whomever” to get the job done better.

To say the backlog is costing the cash-strapped state $33.2 million would be disingenuous.

Most of that total represents automatic daily fines that, by law, pile up on unpaid debts, some going back decades. Long-ago, one-time candidates for minor offices aren’t likely to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars they technically owe for failing to turn in their campaign-finance reports on time.

Ignoring the fines does have a cost, though.

A guy who ran for township trustee in 1982 and didn’t follow the rules right for reporting on his $335 in campaign expenses shouldn’t pay for it with bankruptcy, but he should face an appropriate consequence.

Or he should have faced one, much closer to the time of his mistake.

Citing him for the violation but then failing to follow through leaves little reason for candidates to respect election laws.

And those laws, especially relating to campaign-finance reporting, are important. They’re aimed at keeping campaigners honest and keeping the public informed about who hopes to influence officeholders through donations.

The commission and state lawmakers should take a look at the laws and the capacity of the lightly staffed commission to enforce them.

Leaving fines uncollected as they rack up $100-per-day penalties makes the money less likely to be collected with each passing day.

To maintain respect for election laws, Ohio needs reasonable penalties for violating the laws, and it needs officials who can enforce them.–Columbus Dispatch

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