One powerful tool crooked politicians in West Virginia had until a few days ago was silence. It was illegal for anyone to reveal information about investigations of election law violations or even to admit complaints had been made. Those letting the public know about such probes could be fined as much as $5,000 and sent to jail for as long as a year.
Proponents of the law insisted it was unfair to talk about alleged wrongdoing in politics until and unless formal charges were filed. That is nonsense, of course. There are no laws against releasing details of other types of criminal investigations, right down to the identities of those who may - or may not - be linked to crimes. West Virginians are fair-minded enough to accept a person's claims of innocence until and unless he is convicted by a court.
West Virginia residents have a right to know when there are concerns about honest elections, the same as they are entitled to be told when drug rings or deaths are being investigated. Again, however, the law said no to that until earlier this month.
In a case that originated in Jefferson County, W.Va., the state's broad gag order on crime in politics was overturned. Kanawha County Circuit Judge Duke Bloom ruled the statute is an unconstitutional limit on free speech.
Solely on the First Amendment foundation, Bloom is right. But his ruling should have the practical effect of reducing election law violations by exposing investigations to the light of public scrutiny. As law enforcement officers know, some of the most important evidence they obtain comes from people who step forward with it after learning an investigation is in progress. Until now, that kind of assistance was not available to those seeking to bring crooked politicians and their minions to justice.
For many years, election fraud was rampant in some counties. Outrageous, criminal attempts to sway elections still come to light from time to time.
Bloom's ruling should make it easier for honest public officials to crack down on those who favor lying, cheating and stealing to win elections.