Editorials

Prosecuting an 86-year-old for electioneering? Give the widow a warning and let her go

A video screenshot shows Republican activist Edie Knight of Atascadero talking on the phone in the lobby of the Elks Lodge on Election Day, June 7, 2016. She faces two charges of electioneering at a polling place.
A video screenshot shows Republican activist Edie Knight of Atascadero talking on the phone in the lobby of the Elks Lodge on Election Day, June 7, 2016. She faces two charges of electioneering at a polling place. YouTube

No one is above the law, including an 86-year-old widow in poor health in Atascadero. But the California attorney general’s office should think twice before dragging Edie Knight into court on a misdemeanor rap.

In a classic David-vs.-Goliath showdown, she’s scheduled to go on trial at the end of the month for allegedly violating election rules that forbid campaigning within 100 feet of a polling place. If convicted, she could face up to a year in jail.

A stalwart Republican, Knight was at the polling place at the Atascadero Elks Lodge on June 7, 2016 – the date of the primary election – when she allegedly made a phone call urging the person on the other end of the line to vote.

Nothing wrong with that, except she was within 100 feet of the polling place, and that, by law, is an electioneering-free zone. That means no signs, no buttons and no urging someone to vote for or against a particular candidate.

Someone caught Knight on video as she was making the get-out-the-vote call, and posted the video on YouTube. In the video, Knight does not identify herself as being with a particular campaign, though the person who posted the video maintains Knight began the conversation by saying she was calling on behalf of San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Debbie Arnold.

That person, who has not been identified, filed a report with the Atascadero Police Department, which forwarded it to the District Attorney’s Office. Because the YouTube post questions the D.A.’s objectivity, noting Knight was among his campaign donors, the case was forwarded to the attorney general’s office.

Knight’s defenders say she was merely reminding friends to vote, not telling them whom to vote for, and even if she did violate rules, it was unintentional.

Electioneering is rare. Prosecutions for it are rarer. Occasionally poll workers spot a campaign T-shirt or button, but typically handle it with a warning; voters usually are quick to comply.

The video evidence against Edie Knight may seem to complicate the natural impulse to let her off with a stern warning, but really, dropping this prosecution should be a no-brainer. Bringing the hammer down on her is harsh and divisive.

The attorney general’s office should give her a talking to and let it go.

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