Greensboro, NC -- Jury selection began Thursday in John Edwards' campaign finance violation case.
We spoke with Michael Rich, an Associate Professor of Law at Elon University School of Law.
WFMY: Why do we see so many instances of campaign finance violations? Are the laws just too complicated?
Rich: I think there are three main reasons. First, modern campaigns are complex endeavors that require a lot of practical coordination and a lot of resources. This is especially true of a presidential campaign, but it's increasingly true of statewide campaigns for governor. They require a lot of money and because of limits on campaign contributions, that money often has to come from a lot of different sources.
Second, state and federal election laws impose strict bookkeeping requirements on campaigns to keep track of and report all of these contributions, whether they are direct, monetary contributions - like when someone writes a check to a campaign - or "in-kind" contributions - like the flights that McQueen Campbell provided to Governor Easley that led to the Governor's conviction. Keeping track of all of these records is not easy and the requirements open the door to accidental and intentional violations.
Third, the laws themselves are complex. It's not entirely clear what counts as a campaign contribution. Sometimes things that one might think would count as a contribution don't, and sometimes things count as contributions that one might not expect. This is one of the issues at the heart of the Edwards trial.
This isn't to say that politicians aren't doing things wrong, but that when so much money is at stake and the regulations are so complex, it provides an opportunity for people who want to do the wrong thing think that they can get away with it.
WFMY: What needs to be done to prevent campaign finance violations from happening?
Rich: This is the harder question. You could increase the punishment, but these cases are hard to prove, so a greater risk of punishment is unlikely to do the job. Another alternative is to streamline the regulations. Right now, they're full of loopholes and exceptions. If we get rid of some of those, we could simplify the rules and make them easier to comply with and easier to enforce. Or, we could move to a system of public financing of elections, which could eliminate these requirement entirely. But this sort of reform is difficult to pass politically. So, there's no easy answer.