Orange County's GOP chairman said Friday that he agreed to use party funds to hire Election Day observers at the polls in the 72nd Assembly District but that it was the chief consultant to the district's Republican candidate who decided those observers should be uniformed guards.
A storm of controversy erupted Tuesday after the guards showed up at 7 a.m.--wearing uniforms and carrying signs in Spanish and English warning non-citizens not to vote--at 20 polling places in heavily Latino areas of the 72nd District. In some instances, the guards sat behind tables with poll workers, and at least one of them handled voters' ballots.
When reports of uniformed guards at the polls reached county Registrar of Voters Donald F. Tanney, he ordered them off the premises. Under the law, only voters and election officials may be within 100 feet of a polling place.
The incident has become an embarrassment for the Republican Party, whose leaders at the state level have joined in denouncing the plan because of its potential for intimidating prospective voters, particularly Latino voters who may be new citizens.
County GOP Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes, who has accepted responsibility for the incident, said Friday the guards were requested by Carlos Rodriguez, Assembly candidate Curt Pringle's political consultant, a few weeks before the election. He said he and Rodriguez had discussed anonymous tips that Democrats might try to bus large numbers of people who were illegally registered to vote to the polls and decided there was a need for some kind of security precaution.
"I said we would be willing to pay for that segment of our Election Day overall voting security," Fuentes said, adding that he authorized a $4,000 expenditure. But he said the details of the security arrangement were left to Rodriguez.
GOP Assemblyman John Lewis of Orange, who assisted the Pringle campaign, said Friday that the issue of hiring uniformed personnel to monitor polls was discussed by Republican officials as early as 2 months before the election. Lewis said he recalls such a discussion at a meeting also attended by Fuentes, Pringle campaign staff members and several other GOP officials.
The purpose of the meeting, Lewis said, was to go over Fuentes' budget for the GOP voter drive in the county, including the 72nd District.
"One of the elements discussed," Lewis said, "was voter security."
However, he said no decision was made at that meeting about the guards. Lewis also said he was not involved in the final decision to hire the uniformed observers or the implementation of the GOP's poll monitoring operation in Santa Ana.
Democrats have decried the use of uniformed guards carrying warning signs, saying their presence may have affected the outcome of the 72nd District race. Pringle apparently has won narrowly over Democratic opponent Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach in that race, although some absentee ballots have yet to be counted.
Regarding the signs, Fuentes said he was told only that each of the hired observers would carry signs identifying the person as an "official voting day observer."
"I have yet to find out how the text ended up as it did," Fuentes said of the warnings that non-citizens may not vote. "It is a question I have out to Carlos."
Rodriguez, reached Friday by phone at Lake Tahoe, declined to comment on Fuentes' remarks or any aspect of the security guard incident.
Mary E. Huth, a Santa Ana resident, said Friday in a phone interview that there was a uniformed guard seated next to the ballot box when she arrived at Santa Ana High School to vote Tuesday. She said she saw several voters hand completed ballots to the guard, who then tore off the receipts and deposited the ballots in the box.
But Huth, a student, said she never saw the guard intimidate or question a voter. She said that at one point one of the county workers remarked about how "nice it was the guard was around because they were shorthanded."
A coalition of Santa Ana Latino and political leaders continued to canvass city voters on Friday in an attempt to determine whether anyone was discouraged or prevented from casting a ballot because of the guards.
Miguel A. Pulido Jr., a Santa Ana city councilman, said the group hopes to contact by phone or in person at least 5,000 voters by Sunday.
"We have spent 3 days talking about how outraged we are over this tragic incident," Pulido said. "But now it is time we stop talking and find out how many people were hurt by this."
The coalition is expected to discuss the findings of its survey at a Monday press conference at a church in Santa Ana, one of polling places where a guard was assigned.
Greg Haskins, executive director of the county Republican Party, said he signed the contract to employ the 20 guards for 13 hours on Election Day. But, he said, the program was implemented by Newport Beach GOP political consultant Michael R. Williams of Williams & Associates.
Uniforms a Surprise