Editorials

Prosecuting an 86-year-old Atascadero woman for electioneering goes too far

A video screenshot shows Republican activist Edith “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 Edith “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.

For the record, we don’t believe anyone — including an 86-year-old widow in poor health — is above the law.

But to avoid looking like a heartless bully, the California Attorney General’s Office should think twice — three times, even — before dragging an 86-year-old widow in poor health into court on misdemeanor charges.

That’s exactly what’s happening to Edie Knight of Atascadero. In a classic David-versus-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.

We aren’t asking authorities to ignore the allegations. But for a first offense, wouldn’t a sternly worded warning letter be adequate — and a lot less expensive for taxpayers?

Also, if the state wants to make an example of someone, couldn’t it find someone to pick on besides Knight, who is described by her friends as a “pillar of the community” who has never broken the law?

Some background: Knight, a stalwart Republican, 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 a 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 raises questions about District Attorney Dan Dow’s ability to be objective about the case — it mentions that Knight had contributed to Dow’s campaign — the case was forwarded to the Attorney General’s Office.

“The implication was I wouldn’t be fair and couldn’t be objective,” Dow said.

Knight’s defenders say she was merely reminding friends to vote — not telling them who to vote for — and even if Knight did violate rules, her supporters insist she did so unknowingly.

A group called Friends of Edie Knight Standing for Justice is collecting funds for her defense. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than $6,000 had been raised on the YouCaring website — almost halfway to the goal of $15,000.

“Go after the real criminals and leave her alone!” is the message Edie’s friends are sending the state attorney general.

They have a point. Prosecution is an awfully harsh way to deal with a relatively minor transgression.

It’s also rare; county Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong can’t recall anyone being prosecuted for electioneering at a polling place in the 14 years he’s been with the office.

That doesn’t mean violations don’t occur. Polling place workers do spot them from time to time — someone may wear a T-shirt or button supporting a particular candidate, for example — but they handle it with a warning, and voters almost always are quick to comply.

Warnings make sense.

Overzealous prosecution? Not so much.

Prosecuting Edie Knight is a bad call. It will only further divide Californians along party lines. We urge the state Attorney General’s Office to reconsider.

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