WASHINGTON — A House subcommittee voted Wednesday to postpone a request by Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) to dismiss a challenge to her election victory filed by former Orange County Congressman Robert K. Dornan until a hearing is held in Orange County.
In effect, the vote by the House Contested Elections Task Force gives Dornan a chance to air his allegations at a hearing without first providing evidence to back up his charges, critics said. The decision rankled the panel's lone Democrat and minority vote, who said it gives Dornan the upper hand.
"Mr. Dornan is on a fishing expedition in California," Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer argued as his face reddened. "If we pass this motion, you are sanctioning that."
The vote comes as Dornan is asking the House to call for a new election in the 46th Congressional District, which he lost by 984 votes in November. Dornan blames the loss on voter fraud and election irregularities, while Sanchez insists Dornan has not proven that the suspected voter fraud would have resulted in a different election outcome.
During an hourlong organizational meeting, the House Contested Elections Task Force dealt a second setback to Sanchez by also delaying her request that Dornan provide specific names of illegal voters to substantiate his claim that his election loss was largely due to Latino immigrants registering to vote before completing the citizenship process.
Instead, Sanchez's motions will be considered after the panel holds a hearing in Orange County sometime in April or May.
The decision is critical because it paves the way for what is essentially a trial--formally labeled a "hearing on the merits"--even though Hoyer maintains that allowing the hearing to go forward before Sanchez has a chance to challenge whether the case even has valid complaints breaks precedent for house election reviews.
Critics said it also effectively allows Dornan to proceed with subpoenas of witnesses while leaving Sanchez with only a vague knowledge of what it is he is alleging.
Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.), the task force chairman, defended the subcommittee vote Wednesday, saying the intent of the postponement was a "very straightforward" decision to grant Sanchez's recent request that a hearing on the matter be conducted in Orange County.
Neither Dornan nor Sanchez attended Wednesday's session on Capitol Hill.
Under federal law, the House Oversight Committee, which appointed the three-member task force, has the power to investigate the contested election and recommend that results be set aside. Such a recommendation would then require a vote of the full House.
Hoyer also complained that Sanchez was being placed at a disadvantage and accused Ehlers and the other subcommittee member, Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), of deviating from a privately negotiated agreement not to give an edge to either side before holding the Orange County hearing.
Ehlers responded that Hoyer was "misinformed" about the Republicans' intent and he later told reporters he did not understand the Democrat's objections.
"We are going out there [to Orange County] to try to learn the facts. We have serious allegations of fraudulent votes being cast, of votes being cast twice. . . . We have to investigate that," the chairman said. "We will be looking at the evidence, but, obviously, we will be examining the merits at the same time."
At the start of the meeting, Hoyer asked for an immediate dismissal of Dornan's appeal, claiming Dornan had not proved his charges of voter fraud, nor had he shown that the outcome of the election would have been different had the ballots Dornan is objecting to not been cast.
But Ehlers rejected Hoyer's motion outright.
"It appears to me that without any doubt, this matter deserves further investigation," Ehlers said, citing local newspaper reports as well as ongoing investigations by the Orange County district attorney's office and the California secretary of state.
"We have to get more information. The way to get more information is to hold a hearing," Ehlers said, adding that once information is gathered, the panel can then decide whether there was enough voter fraud to invalidate Sanchez's election.
The task force chairman said he preferred that the hearing be held April 19, but offered April 18 and May 5 as alternative dates.