Uniformed security guards hired by the Republican Party of Orange County were removed from Santa Ana polling places Tuesday morning after the chief deputy secretary of state termed their presence "unlawful intimidation of voters."
Outraged Democratic Party leaders had charged that the guards were harassing Latino voters in the bitterly contested 72nd Assembly District, writing down automobile license plate numbers and challenging voters to prove that they are U.S. citizens.
Santa Ana police were investigating charges that at least 20 security guards, clad in blue uniforms and wearing badges, had interfered with voters at Santa Ana polling places and displayed signs in English and Spanish warning against voting by non-citizens, officials said.
Orange County Registrar of Voters Donald F. Tanney said the matter would probably be referred to the district attorney's office by the end of the week.
Republican Party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes confirmed that the security guards "were part of our Election Day security effort" in mostly Latino neighborhoods in central and south Santa Ana. Along with the uniformed guards, signs in English and Spanish were posted outside polling places warning non-citizens that it is a felony to vote.
Fuentes termed the charges of harassment and intimidation "a media event" created by Democrats, and he denied that the guards had in any way interfered with voters.
However, the Democratic candidate in the 72nd Assembly District, Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach of Anaheim, blasted the GOP's use of uniformed observers.
"It shows me the people in control of the Orange County Republican Party are desperate, ruthless individuals who would stop at nothing to get what they want," Thierbach said, referring to the all-out GOP effort on behalf of his Republican opponent, Curt Pringle.
Stunned Latino leaders from both political parties sharply condemned the GOP's ballot tactics.
Santa Ana Councilman John Acosta predicted that Republicans had set back party efforts to recruit Latinos "by 20 years." Positioning uniformed guards outside polling places is "totally, totally un-American. It smacks of Nazism. . . ."
But David Gilliard, a consultant to Pringle, said their campaign "received a tip" several weeks ago to watch for "voting irregularities" on Election Day.
"We were more concerned about the potential for vote fraud than how this looked to the public," Gilliard said. "There is a lot at stake in this race." So far Pringle and Thierbach have raised a combined campaign fund of $2.1 million, making the contest one of the most expensive in California.
Acosta, a longtime Republican, said he was "very, very hurt" by the decision to post guards at polling places in heavily Latino areas. "The dignity of the Republican Party has been damaged beyond belief."
'Lapse in Judgment'
Orange County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, one of the GOP's most prominent Latinos in California, said the episode "showed a tremendous lapse in judgment. . . . I am extremely disappointed."
The security guards carried an instruction sheet with a referral number that rang at Pringle's campaign headquarters. But Pringle said Tuesday night that his campaign had nothing to do with the county Republican Party's decision to post uniformed observers at some of the polls. Party officials said that number was given in the flyer because their get-out-the-vote effort was centered at Pringle's campaign headquarters.
Pringle said the guards were at the polls solely for "informational purposes," but he added, "I think it's a shame they were uniformed. I don't think that was very appropriate. Yet all they were doing there was to watch."
Tony Miller, chief deputy secretary of state, said he doubted that his agency would press charges because no voter has complained of being afraid to vote. Miller noted that after he called Republican Party officials, they called off their private guards. But he termed the presence of the guards, some of whom sat alongside election officials at the polls, intimidating.
Posting signs in both English and Spanish, "the security guards were indicating to voters that voting by non-citizens is a felony," Miller said. "That is unlawful intimidation of voters. It's a statement of the law which is accurate. But that comment by guards who are not election officials is deemed to be unlawful intimidation."
Paul Garza, executive director of the Democratic Party of Orange County said his office began fielding complaints soon after the polls opened Tuesday.
"They were just challenging every Hispanic voter," Garza said. "We feel this is a violation of their civil rights. We've heard about this being done along the Rio Grande in Texas. But it's unconscionable that it is being done in Orange County."
Across much of southern Texas Monday and Tuesday, Republicans ran TV and radio advertisements warning undocumented Latinos not to attempt to vote.