Most complaints lodged with the Washington State Public Disclosure Commission, which handles election-related accusations of wrongdoing and dishes out penalties to guilty campaigns, never result in an investigation. Only about 30 percent go to investigators, says spokeswoman Lori Anderson, while the rest are minor enough that they don't merit a probe or there's no evidence to back up the claim.

However, one of the complaints now under review by investigators stems from allegations about the race for the Seattle Municipal Court. James Tupper, a supporter of Edsonya Charles (who lost by a chasm), alleged in September that Charles's opponent, Ed McKenna, and a political action committee operated by DUI defense attorneys broke state rules when they coordinated efforts but didn't report the expenditures. Some more background is here and here. The state agreed to look into the case on Monday.

"There has to be a little something that the person who is complaining has to support their claim," Anderson says. And in this case, Tupper presented over a dozen emails and other documents that show a paid consultant for Citizens for Judicial Excellence (CJE) was in regular communication with McKenna's campaign, appearing to offer advice and join a campaign meeting. No in-kind contribution was ever reported by CJE or McKenna.

There's no way to know what the commission will find, and I don't want to speculate about their innocence or guilt. For the sake of this question, it could be any campaign. But let's say the commission finds the CJE was wrong. What then?

The PDC's authority to penalize a group is fairly limited. "The commission's top penalty authority is $4,200," Anderson explains. Alternatively, commissioners can try to negotiate a plea deal for a larger fine or ask the state attorney general to take the case—requesting a much more severe penalty. For examples of prosecuted cases, the BIAW had to pay $242,000 and the state Republican party recently had to pay $15,000 for violating rules when Dino Rossi ran for governor. But that's fairly rare. "Out of the 21 hearings in the last 12 months, the Public Disclosure Commission referred only one case to the Attorney General," Anderson says. That was the now-infamous Moxie Media case in October. More typical are cases like this: A county auditor who got dinged for $300.

Again, it's impossible to know what will happen with the CJE case. But if the CJE (or any campaign) is guilty and gets fined—the maximum $4,200—that's not much of a deterrent. CJE reported $30,000 in the bank, according to the latest state filings. The cost of the maximum PDC penalty is the sort of money that CJE—or any campaign—can essentially build into its budget.

So I'll just put this out there: Should the PDC have more authority to slap larger fines on guilty campaigns, to impose a fine large enough to act as a real deterrent, and to avoid the long and expensive path of prosecution in state courts? Perhaps—otherwise campaigns can essentially build a malfeasance penalty into their budgets, just like any other business expense.