The Post was most appropriately ambivalent in its Nov. 15 editorial surveying the aftermath of the recent Mandel decision. The overturning of the 10-year-old mail fraud conviction of former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel was the legally correct thing to do, but it hardly was a vindication of justice -- even for Mandel himself, who had long since completed his sentence for use of the mails in connection with a kickback scheme. Further, the judge who threw out the conviction hardly disputed the prior allegations against Mandel's dealings, which the judge himself characterized as "fishy and perhaps dishonest."
Instead, Mandel's conviction was overturned because there no longer was any law to prosecute him under. Four months earlier, in McNally v. United States, the Supreme Court had declared that federal fraud statutes were inapplicable to government corruption and that the laws didn't protect citizens' intangible property right to good government. This ruling was a tremendous blow to federal prosecutors, who for years have successfully used federal fraud statutes to battle corruption in state and local government.
When people are denied fair and honest representation because of discriminatory voting practices, election fraud, corruption or other abuses of power, redress rarely is available at the local level. That is why Congress stepped into the states in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act, to eradicate a tradition of discrimination against minority voters. For the same reason, federal fraud prosecutions have been one of the few truly effective remedies against entrenched, corrupt local politicians.
The Supreme Court eliminated that remedy, however, undermining nearly 200 past cor-ruption convictions based on fraud -- starting with Mandel's -- and bringing to an abrupt haltat least a hundred current investigations.It's anyone's guess whether these investigations will be completed in good faith by state officials.
Nevertheless, The Post correctly noted that the Supreme Court's reasoning was "right," even if the result seems disastrous. Criminal statutes ought to be applied narrowly and not used as blunt weapons against every kind of offensive practice, however egregious. The problem really is in the law itself, which unduly restricts the federal government's role in setting high standards of democracy, through fair elections and honest government.
I have introduced legislation, the "Election Fraud Prevention Act of 1987" (S. 1837), to broaden that role where federal involvement is warranted. It would elevate most election offenses -- such as vote buying and voter harassment -- from misdemeanors to federal felonies, deterring a form of corruption that state officials often ignore or tolerate. The bill would strengthen federal laws against trading government benefits for campaign contributions, improving prosecutors' resources in fighting corruption. And it would allow candidates to obtain federal supervision of election activity at polling places where wrongdoing is anticipated.
S. 1837 is not designed to completely overturn McNally or Mandel, since both rulings clearly are on solid legal ground. Instead, the bill repairs some of the damage these decisions have caused and attempts to focus Congress' attention on the need for a better defined and perhaps more active federal role in the law-enforcement war against government corruption and election fraud.
Yet some believe that it's not the federal government's business at all to stop election and government abuses at the state level. That was the argument used against the Voting RightsAct of 1965: simply put, it is the states' right to be as corrupt as they can get away with. Fortunately, however, Congress at that time recognized that it had an obligation to protect the right of all Americans to vote, without restrictions or harassment. It could have left the problem for the states to solve, but instead it acted with conviction and wiped out voting discrimination within just a few years. It's anyone's guess whether those entrenched practices still would be around had Congress not taken the lead.
The writer is a Republican senator from Kentucky.