SANTA ANA — Based on evidence that alleged voter fraud at a Latino rights agency is more widespread than previously reported, Secretary of State Bill Jones on Friday ordered a review of Orange County's 1.3 million residents registered to vote in last year's general election.
Jones' action stems from a new audit by his office and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service of voter registration cards distributed by Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. The Santa Ana immigrant rights group is at the heart of an investigation by his office and the Orange County district attorney into alleged voter fraud.
Of the 1,160 people registered to vote on Hermandad-issued cards, 721 apparently had not completed the citizenship process before they registered, Jones said. Of that number, investigators contend, 442 unlawfully voted in the Nov. 5 election, in which 874,017 votes were cast countywide.
"I have concluded that substantial probable cause now exists to examine the integrity of the entire Orange County voter registration file in order to fully and accurately assess the extent of unlawful registrations . . . and to identify the sources of such unlawful registrations," Jones wrote in a letter Friday to the INS in Los Angeles.
Jones has cited state statutes as giving him the authority to order the review of registrants. But on a practical level, he needs the cooperation of the INS to determine the citizenship status of those who registered for the past election.
Hermandad officials have repeatedly denied helping any noncitizens to register or vote, although they acknowledge that some overzealous students taking citizenship classes may have done so on their own.
Mark Rosen, Hermandad's attorney, said the "numbers sound highly overstated."
"I don't take at face value any of the figures" being reported by the media or official agencies, he said. "If and when we have to, we will do our own evaluation of each registration that they claim is somehow impaired."
The new numbers of improper registrations and votes are higher than earlier estimates. The district attorney's office said in an affidavit filed in January that 227 people registered to vote on Hermandad registration cards while in the process of applying for citizenship.
Some of these people voted. But even if they were naturalized by election day, their votes would be invalid because they were not citizens when they registered, according to the secretary of state.
In his letter to Richard K. Rogers, Los Angeles district director of the INS, Jones cites state and federal law as the basis for his request.
Reached Friday, Rogers said he had received Jones' letter and would cooperate. The only problem he envisioned would be how to accomplish the review.
"I am going to have to check with Washington, but I see it as a legitimate request under the law enforcement exemption" that permits the INS to share records with other agencies, he said. Rogers said he expected to take the matter up on Monday with headquarters.
Eric Andrus, chief spokesman for the INS in Washington, cautioned that INS records on individuals are protected by law. He said the request made Friday would have to be reviewed and that the public interest in knowing the information would have to be weighed against the privacy of the individuals.
The result of the voter-roll analysis is sure to become a key element in the challenge mounted in Orange County by defeated Rep. Robert K. Dornan, who lost Nov. 5 to Democrat Loretta Sanchez by 984 votes. Dornan has asked Congress to order a new election in the 46th District, claiming that he was ousted primarily by the votes of noncitizens. And Jones said he expects to be called as a witness in an upcoming congressional subcommittee hearing on the matter.
Because of his association with the GOP, Jones, who once served as Republican caucus leader in the state Assembly, is likely to draw criticism from some quarters for ordering the review.
But on Friday, Jones denied that his order was an attempt to assist a fellow Republican. "It comes back to whether the system as currently operating is adequate to ensure the integrity of the system," Jones said.
Depending on the outcome of the Orange County review, Jones said, he would consider using the same technique elsewhere in the state to safeguard voter registration, which is conducted under an honor system in California.
Jones said the INS review would be "one piece in a comprehensive" check of the voter file, which also would include his office working with the Orange County registrar to weed out duplicate registrations, people who vote unlawfully from business addresses, fictitious registrations and other irregularities.
Jones said the number of fraudulent registrations connected to Hermandad is "the biggest in [recent state] history" and he is concerned that others could exploit the same weaknesses in the system.