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Dornan Vows Appeal to House if Lead Is Lost

November 12, 1996|PETER M. WARREN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

GARDEN GROVE — Rep. Robert K. Dornan vowed Monday to carry his reelection fight to the House of Representatives if his slim 233-vote lead is erased by last-minute absentee ballots or a recount.

As the Orange County registrar of voters prepares to tally the remaining absentees on Wednesday, the Garden Grove Republican expressed concern that he might, at least initially, fall behind Democrat Loretta Sanchez in the central Orange County district.

While sounding confident that he would win once so-called "provisional ballots" are added to the totals later this month, Dornan raised the specter of "noncitizen" voter fraud and said he is prepared to turn to his House colleagues to investigate the results.

By law, the House is the final arbiter in all congressional races. As recently as 1984, the results of a House election in Indiana were overturned by a Democratic majority in the House, which reviewed the ballots and designated an incumbent Democrat the winner by four votes.

About 68,000 last-minute absentees--those turned in on Election Day last Tuesday or the day before--remain to be counted. Between 6,000 and 10,000 of these come from Dornan's 46th Congressional District.

Countywide, another 15,000 to 20,000 ballots have been declared provisional because election officials were unable to verify at the polls that they had been cast by eligible voters. These will not be counted until they are validated, a process that could take a week to 10 days, Registrar of Voters Rosalyn Lever said. Officials say their goal is to complete the count and certify the result by Nov. 26.

Both sides have suggested they would request a recount of the ballots in the face of defeat in what is among the closest congressional races nationwide.

The Sanchez campaign Monday rejected the allegations of fraud and called Dornan's talk of appealing the results to the House "desperate."

Dornan, who is seeking election to a 10th term, predicted Monday that he would fall behind Wednesday by "a handful of votes" after the late-arriving absentee ballots are counted. "But I will win by the provisionals, overcoming any small deficit," he said.

Dornan raised the issues of voter fraud and congressional intervention simultaneously, saying his Republican colleagues are seeking a case to use in challenging registration procedures nationwide.

There has been a campaign across the country in recent years to make it easier for people to register to vote. The drive culminated in the federal "motor-voter" registration law of 1993, which requires states to allow registration at various state and local agencies. The law was widely criticized by Republicans, including Gov. Pete Wilson.

In making his case for possible voter fraud, Dornan called voter registration "an honor system" in which no effort is made in the county to determine whether voters are citizens, even though citizenship is a requirement for voting.

Lever confirmed that since 1976 prospective voters have not been asked to provide proof of citizenship when registering. "You are signing a declaration that you are a citizen," under penalty of perjury, she said. ". . . We have no authority to ask for proof of citizenship."

Lever called the possibility of fraud "highly unlikely," and said that over the years she has "found no evidence of widespread or organized fraud." Similar systems are used throughout the state.

Losing candidates have made well-publicized allegations of similar voter fraud in recent years, then dropped them for lack of proof. Republican Michael Huffington made such claims after losing in 1994 to Dianne Feinstein in a Senate race. So did Republican Susan Brooks, who lost a bid for Congress in 1994 to Jane Harman in Los Angeles County. The two took their fraud claims to the Senate and House, respectively, then abandoned them several months later.

But Dornan insisted in an interview Monday that an organized effort to register voters by a Latino citizenship group and the Democratic Party could have led to "the first case in history where a congressional election was decided by noncitizens."

"Perhaps we should impound all these ballots, ship them to Washington, then have the House of Representatives run a giant Cray computer comparison on the entire voting list to find out if all these voters are citizens," he said.

Dornan said he had evidence of "two hot instances" where bounties were paid to people who signed up new voters. Although that practice is not illegal, he said it opens up the possibility that a recruiter would disregard the law.

In response, John Shallman, Sanchez's campaign manager, said Dornan is doing "everything he can to cling to his political life."

"My feeling is Dornan sounds like he is preparing for a loss Wednesday and he is trying to figure out how he can manufacture a conspiracy theory because he cannot accept a decision by the voters that he has lost," he said.

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