The FBI is investigating allegations of voter intimidation by uniformed security guards who were hired by the Orange County Republican Party and posted at polling places in heavily Latino precincts in Santa Ana.
Republican officials said the guards were hired because of anonymous tips about a Democratic plan to bus illegal aliens to the polls to vote.
No proof of citizenship is required when an individual registers to vote, according to Orange County Registrar of Voters Donald F. Tanney, although only citizens may vote legally.
The uniformed guards were sent to the polling places with large signs in English and Spanish warning non-citizens not to vote.
The polling places were in the 72nd Assembly District, and Carlos Rodriguez, the chief consultant to the Republican candidate who apparently won there, said Wednesday that the outcome might have been different without the guards.
"I'm not at all sure we would have won," Rodriguez said.
Republican Curt Pringle was leading Democrat Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach of Anaheim by 671 votes, as the counting of absentee ballots continued Wednesday.
Tanney said he visited two of the polling places Tuesday night and will report his findings to the Orange County district attorney's office for review of any election code violations, such as interference with a polling place or intimidation of voters.
"At this point in time I feel it's best handled by an independent law enforcement agency," Tanney said. A spokesman for the district attorney's office had no comment.
Latinos and Democrats reacted strongly, likening the presence of uniformed security guards at the polls to "Gestapo" tactics.
Thierbach said his campaign has no proof that anyone was denied the chance to vote because the guards were present. However, he said that does not "diminish the gravity" of what happened.
Thierbach, a prosecutor with the Riverside County district at tor ney's office, said he received reports that some guards were inside polling places, a possible violation of federal election laws. "We were even told that one of the guards was sitting next to a ballot box and was handling ballots as people left," Thierbach said.
Guards Found at Tables
Bob Hattoy, director of the Dukakis presidential campaign in Orange County, said he found four polling places where security guards were sitting at tables with volunteer poll workers. Poll workers told him they thought the guards were sent from the county registrar's office as a peacekeeping move, Hattoy said.
"I said, 'No, they're not! They're hired by a Republican candidate and have no business being here.' "
Hattoy said one of the guards, who told him she was a Democrat, said her job was to stop and ask only Latinos if they were citizens.
Some Republican leaders were apologetic Wednesday but insisted that there was good cause to post guards at polling booths to avert voting by noncitizens. Republicans conceded, however, that they have no proof that such illegal voting occurred.
Rodriguez said the Pringle campaign had received anonymous information indicating a likelihood of false voter registration and the transportation of noncitizens into the 72nd District to vote.
"If there was an offense taken by anyone, I assure you that was not the intent. But if indeed there was then I think we need to say lo siento, which is 'we are sorry,' and we genuinely apologize," Orange County Republican Party chairman Thomas A. Fuentes said.
"These people were specifically instructed to remain a legal distance from the polling place," Fuentes said. "I would say in retrospect, based on the brouhaha created by the opposition in the media, I would not have" hired the uniformed guards.
Fuentes said the decision to hire the guards was made by the county GOP--by "our staff, I guess."
The FBI acknowledged Wednesday only that it has launched an inquiry. "We have opened up an investigation to look into allegations of election law violations in that matter," FBI spokesman Jim Neilson said.
In Santa Ana, a group of Latinos called a news conference Wednesday to protest what they called the "unmitigated intimidation" of Latino voters and said they were in the process of asking the FBI, the Justice Department and the state attorney general's office to investigate.
Times staff writers Dianne Klein, Claudia Luther and David Reyes contributed to this article.