Schurick trial: A punishment to fit the crime

Considering that Paul Schurick faced as much as 12 years in prison for his role in a 2010 election day robocall that fraudulently urged voters to stay home from the polls, the sentence handed down today to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s 2010 campaign manager may sound a bit light. Mr. Schurick will serve no jail time and pay no fine. He was sentenced to 30 days of home detention, four years of probation and 500 hours of community service. And he shamefully continued to insist on the courthouse steps after the sentence that a clear attempt to suppress black votes was actually a "counterintuitive" effort to turn out African-American supporters of Mr. Ehrlich. But that is not to say that the former political operative's conviction and sentence were insignificant, or that some good can't come from this sorry episode.

What Mr. Schurick did was to authorize an automated telephone call that went to nearly 200,000 households in heavily Democratic (and heavily African-American) Baltimore City and Prince George's County in the waning hours of the 2010 gubernatorial race. Although the call went out before the polls closed, it told voters to "relax" and watch the results on TV because Gov. Martin O'Malley and President Barack Obama (who wasn't on the ballot) had already been successful. Despite Mr. Schurick's assurance to the contrary, it was a clear attempt to persuade people not to vote through fraud, and there is a law against that in Maryland.

But this case was the first time the statute had been employed. (A trial for political operative Julius Henson, who actually arranged for the call to be recorded and broadcast, has been delayed.) That leaves us with no precedent to gauge whether Mr. Schurick's sentence is more or less than one can expect for such a crime.

Should he have been forced to serve time in jail? It's hard to see what purpose that would serve. Mr. Schurick, who had a long and prominent career in Maryland politics and government before this incident, is no threat to society. He is also no threat to the integrity of future elections; the notoriety he gained as a result of the robocall itself and the subsequent trial and conviction mean his career in politics is over. Any politician who hired him would immediately suffer the taint of this episode.

And even without Mr. Schurick's going to jail, this case serves as a warning sign to everyone else involved in Maryland politics that there are lines that cannot be crossed. This state has a rough history of election day shenanigans — what Mr. Schurick did was not all that different from distributing anonymous fliers that have been known to circulate before a Tuesday election, reminding people to be sure to vote on Wednesday. But the legislature's adoption of this law reflects a welcome evolution of public standards on electoral conduct. The right to vote is precious, and we will not abide the use of fraud, threats or intimidation to keep people from exercising it. The next time someone suggests a voter suppression strategy to a Maryland political candidate or campaign manager, will they think of Mr. Schurick — and of his plea for leniency from Judge Lawrence P. Fletcher-Hill: "I made a decision that destroyed the legacy that I left for my career"? You bet.

A hefty fine might well have underscored the point, but it would not have achieved another key purpose of a sentence, and that is to provide some restitution to those who have been wronged. That's where the requirement of community service comes in. The 500 hours (incidentally, the same amount of time to which former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon was sentenced) must be split between the two communities that were the target of the robocall, Baltimore City and Prince George's County.

That's appropriate, but we would urge Mr. Schurick to go one step further. Mr. Schurick's offense was specifically against the right of franchise in those two jurisdictions, and he should tailor his community service to undo that damage. The robocall had no immediate practical effect in that it did not prevent Mr. Schurick's candidate from losing in a landslide. But it did feed cynicism about the political process. That is a harm that Mr. Schurick can and should use his 500 hours to address. He could spend the time helping people to register to vote, volunteering as an election judge or speaking to community groups to explain why voting is important. Then he might learn just how ridiculous it was for him to lament that campaigns from now on will be "bland," and he might learn just how that robocall sounded on the other end fo the line. It wouldn't restore his legacy, but working to increase the voter turnout he once tried to suppress would be a fitting sign of devotion to the political system to which he had dedicated his life.

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