SANTA ANA — Rep. Robert K. Dornan began his promised crusade against noncitizen voting Friday, and predicted for the first time that a combination of voter fraud and mishandling of ballots would require a new election in the 46th Congressional District.
In a flurry of appearances aimed at winning converts to his cause, the nine-term Garden Grove Republican argued his case first at a breakfast of wealthy GOP contributors, visited the scene of the alleged political crime and then made his pitch to the national audience that watches CNN's "Inside Politics."
On a day that saw him narrow only slightly the margin of votes held by his Democratic opponent, Loretta Sanchez, Dornan also received some less than encouraging news from California Secretary of State Bill Jones, who was answering Dornan's request to follow up on voter fraud allegations.
In a letter faxed to Dornan late in the afternoon, Jones said specific evidence would be required for his agency to investigate.
Dornan tried to find some of that evidence earlier in the day. Accompanied by his son, Mark, the congressman visited Our Lady of the Pillar Catholic Church in Santa Ana, where he claims election irregularities took place.
In interviews at the church, Dornan uncovered information that contradicted a story told by workers staffing a poll there on election day. After they were discovered delivering an unsealed ballot box to the registrar's office, the poll workers said they had been told to leave the church because the hall was needed for another event.
But Dornan found otherwise--that the poll workers had not been obliged to leave in haste without performing the required precinct closing procedures.
"I now am convinced there will be a new election," said Dornan. "A court will throw out the results because of contamination of the integrity, the security of the chain of custody of ballot boxes coming from some of the biggest ballot districts in Orange County."
However, Deputy Registrar of Voters Don Taylor said a review Friday of the handling of the ballot boxes from two precincts in Santa Ana revealed some irregularities, but a very limited potential for error.
"It is not looking that serious," said Taylor.
At a morning meeting of the conservative Lincoln Club of Orange County, however, the executive board heard Dornan out and decided that his allegations voter fraud were disturbing.
The group of wealthy political contributors voted unanimously to ask Jones to "withhold certifying the election until a proper investigation could be made," said club President Dale Dykema.
A spokeswoman for Jones said the secretary of state "does not have statutory authority to delay certification of the results as determined by the county registrar."
"You can scream voter fraud," said spokeswoman Beth Miller, "but we need some evidence to open a case. We need more information."
At the heart of Dornan's allegations is generalized criticism of the voter registration process, which is handled in California on the honor system. But he has also said the 46th District race included instances of "registering people who aren't citizens, registering felons, registering children, using fake addresses, double registration."
Dornan has offered only a few specifics, many of them phoned in to his office by concerned citizens. In one verified case, a mother who lives in Garden Grove found her son, 16, had been registered to vote by a bounty hunter, even though the boy declined to complete a registration card.
But the key instance for Dornan, perhaps, involved the unsealed ballot box from Our Lady of the Pillar, where 684 people were registered to vote.
Republican election observers saw the precinct workers from the church polling place arrive at the registrar's office about 8:15 on election night carrying an unsealed ballot box and ballots, according to affidavits of the GOP observers.
The Dornan campaign figured this gave someone a prime opportunity for ballot-box stuffing, with someone punching ballot cards for Sanchez while someone else drove across the city.
Checking the poll workers story, Dornan found the parish hall was assigned exclusively for election business that day. Father Robert Huse, associate pastor, confirmed the arrangement and said no one would have been authorized to tell the poll workers to leave.
Late Friday, Taylor said he had talked with the precinct workers who had revised their story slightly. Taylor said the workers left, failing to complete the 45-minute precinct closing process at the polling place when "a noisy youth group" normally scheduled to use the hall on Tuesday nights showed up even though their meeting had been rescheduled because of the election.
"It looks like there are certain procedures that were not followed exactly," he said. "They did what they thought was the next best thing and . . . threw [the election material] in the box and brought it to us."
Taylor said 250 votes were cast at the precinct along with another 24 provisional ballots. In addition, 71 absentee ballots were collected there.