Should Candidates Who Owe Campaign Fines be Barred from the Ballot?
Posted: March 19, 2017|Category: Rights of Candidates Category: Voting Rights
Governor Gina Raimondo has announced the introduction of a “Good Government Reform” package of legislation designed to “restore confidence in government.” There’s a lot to be said for that, but one of the proposals – barring candidates who owe campaign fines from running for office – should be rejected.
Candidates who willfully fail to comply with reporting requirements or other aspects of the campaign finance laws deserve to be penalized. But it is already a criminal offense for a candidate to “willfully and knowingly” violate the campaign finance statutes. The law further authorizes courts to issue injunctive relief against violations of this statute and, more importantly, to impose a civil penalty of up to three times the amount of the contributions or expenditures not reported by the elected official. Contempt proceedings are available against any person who fails to comply with such court orders.
However, these remedies are never pursued. They should be. The Governor’s bill is not necessary other than to bypass these more potent penalties, and thus effectively weaken, not strengthen, the punishment imposed against violators. As a substitute for the more serious penalties already on the books, it serves almost like a “get out of jail free” card.
The bill’s approach is troubling for another reason. However unintentionally, it could effectively give the Board of Elections the power to decide which candidates who owe fines can run for office. That is because the Board routinely exercises discretion in trying to settle outstanding fines. By being tougher or more lenient in deciding what constitutes a reasonable settlement for any particular candidate, the Board could, in effect, decide who does and does not get to run for office.
Furthermore, keeping otherwise qualified candidates off the ballot unnecessarily infringes on voter choice by limiting access to the ballot. The Rhode Island Constitution sets specific qualifications for candidates, and the legislature should not be expanding those qualifications by statute. Claims of candidate misconduct beyond those established by the Constitution should be fair game on the campaign trail, not a bar to running for office in the first place. That is what elections are about.
People deserve to be concerned about candidates who flout campaign finance laws. But instead of passing legislation like this, using the remedies already on the books would be a more effective deterrent and would better respect the electoral process.