A few years ago, we had a brainstorm, one that struck while digging through public comments connected to a piece of rulemaking by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

What alarmed us, as we collected notable reactions for the sort of story we traditionally do as part of the rulemaking process, was how much junk there was.

Poking around public comments at other government agencies, we saw even more of the same. There were, of course, informed, intelligent discourses. Then, there were hundreds—sometimes thousands—of form letters, identical in every way except the signature. Capping off the voluminous correspondence were reactions that barely connected to the rulemaking at hand. Proclamations that Hillary is a crook, Obama is a Muslim, and assertions that any rulemaking with even the slightest progressive bent had to be the work of George Soros.

Just one of many examples comes from responses to the Department of Health and Human Services and an effort to review its designations of “medically underserved populations and health professional shortage areas.”

A notable response, verbatim and with original spelling intact:

“The american people do not want to pay for medical care for illegal immigrants who sneak into thisi country to leach off american taxpaeyrs. illegal immigrants shuold be identified before any medical care is given. american citizens can show identification but if all they have is fake documents, or no documents, their names should be turned over to immigration to be deported. the american people are sick of being taken for suckers for every leach who sneaks into our country. american citizens should be served. illegal immigrants should be deported and shoudl seek medical care in their own home country. the american people are sick and tired of getting the bills for these sneaking leaches.”

Our question: has the public comment process for official rulemaking become as mean-spirited and factually useless as the online comment sections in the most uncivil parts of the internet? (YouTube, we’re looking at you.)

To the average person, parsing though public comments may seem dreadful work. Nevertheless, it is the backbone of how rules are crafted by regulators and must be protected as such.

We approached the story, and quickly (perhaps prematurely) abandoned it. Simply put, no one took our suggestion of a flawed public comment system seriously, or they shifted the discussion to the other public comment process, the give and take between the SEC and public companies that provides useful application information regarding rules and rule changes.

We should have been more persistent. Within a couple of years, “fake news” gripped social media, potentially fueled by Russian political agents.

More recently, the comment process incorporated into the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to roll back “net neutrality” was discovered to be tainted with responses from oblivious respondents. Even a few dead people drove home the illicit nature of the campaign.

Apparently, a database of billions of people's names, email addresses, and physical addresses, compiled for spam campaigns, was hacked, released, and deployed.

New York’s attorney general set up a database to look up the fake comments. To date, more than 5,000 people have filed reports with his office regarding identities used to submit fake comments.

Despite widespread evidence that the public comment process was corrupted, the FCC’s General Counsel has said that the agency will not cooperate with the Attorney General’s investigation into the impersonation of New Yorkers.

The shenanigans didn’t stop there. Other investigations, including one by the Wall Street Journal, found evidence of public comment manipulation at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the FCC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Labor Department, and the SEC.

Is the public comment process, as mandated by the Administrative Procedures Act, doomed? Not necessarily.

The act itself is a federal felony, falling in the category of “knowingly making false, fictitious or fraudulent statements to a U.S. agency. Rather than ignoring the problem, there needs to be an unambiguous, direct, and consequential response. Arrest someone, or ideally multiple people, for the crime.

Also, as is the case with so many other websites, implementing better screens to prevent bot and spam abuse. A short, relevant quiz may offer the sort of roadblock that drives away cheaters.

To the average person, parsing though public comments may seem dreadful work. Nevertheless, it is the backbone of how rules are crafted by regulators and must be protected as such.