Thursday, February 03, 2005

Blaming the Messengers

Published: February 3, 2005
New York Times Editorial

One of the strengths of our democracy is that citizens are free to question the results of an election. But four lawyers who did just that in Ohio, contesting President Bush's victory, are now facing sanctions. These lawyers, and other skeptics, may not have cast significant doubt on the legitimacy of the outcome. But punishing them for trying would send a disturbing message.

Clifford Arnebeck and three other lawyers contested the vote totals in Ohio, whose 20 electoral votes put President Bush over the top. Ohio had many problems on Election Day, including lines of up to 10 hours to vote, and a shortage of voting machines in African-American neighborhoods. But they were nowhere near widespread enough to erase Mr. Bush's margin of more than 118,000 votes. The lawyers also charged fraud, but they never proved their case.

Ohio's attorney general, who represents Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell in the matter, has asked the State Supreme Court to sanction Mr. Arnebeck and the others for mounting a "frivolous" challenge. Even though their case was weak, these lawyers did a public service by raising concerns that many voters shared. The burden put on Ohio's courts by their challenge was minimal. Courts know what to do when they get a weak case: throw it out.

Imposing sanctions would be likely to deter people from raising concerns about future elections, and ultimately undermine public confidence in the electoral process. The Ohio Supreme Court should make it clear that people have the right to challenge election results without fear of retribution.

It is odd that Mr. Blackwell, of all people, is requesting sanctions. He made many bad decisions as Ohio's top elections official, including one to reject voter registrations filed on insufficiently thick paper, an order he later retracted. Mr. Blackwell and the officials responsible for the 10-hour lines have not been held accountable for putting unnecessary obstacles in the way of Ohio voters. It will be a poor reflection on our election system if the only ones punished are the lawyers who tried to point out these deficiencies.

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