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ACORN pleads guilty—and gets a slap on the wrist

Remember ACORN? The now-defunct political group that fought for neighborhood safety and affordable housing? The group that helped register voters for President Obama’s 2008 campaign? And do you remember how the talking heads on Fox News kept accusing the group of shady dealings? Well, the talking heads were right on this one. ACORN’s Nevada chapter just pled guilty to felony compensation for registration of voters.

Nevada law states, “It is unlawful for a person to provide compensation for registering voters that is based upon the total number of voters a person registers … A violation of this provision is a category E felony.”

Why do we have this law? For a couple of (presumable) reasons: First, paying canvassers based on how many voter registration forms they return encourages them to turn in sloppy forms and fraudulent ones. (It’s estimated that 400,000 of ACORN’s forms were eventually rejected for various reasons.) Second, Nevada doesn’t want to pressure its citizens into voting or even registering. When we ratchet up this pressure, voting feels less like a civic right and more like a burden.

ACORN will only be forced to pay $5,000 (or less) for its violation. Prosecutor Patrick Ferguson said, “We’re not looking to take money away from [ACORN’s] creditors”—ACORN owes a lot of money to a lot of people—“but a message had to be sent.”

One problem, Ferguson: That message wasn’t sent. Any good plaintiff attorney will tell you that in a court of law, messages are only sent when defendants are forced to pay through the nose. Five thousand dollars isn’t nose money—not even close. That figure will do nothing to discourage the next group from violating this law in the 2012 election.

The solution? Let’s either repeal this law—a strong freedom of speech argument could be made—or get serious about enforcing it.

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