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Panel Orders INS to Certify All O.C. Voters

Inquiry: Citizenship record search would extend beyond district in which Dornan blames voter fraud for election defeat.

May 15, 1997|DEXTER FILKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In an unprecedented move, a House committee on Wednesday ordered the Immigration and Naturalization Service to verify the citizenship of all of Orange County's 1.3 million voters, signaling its intention to take its voter-fraud inquiry far beyond the claims of former Congressman Robert K. Dornan.

The House Oversight Committee, which is handling the dispute between Dornan and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), rejected suggestions that it limit its search for tainted ballots to the 46th Congressional District race, which Dornan claims he lost because of widespread voting by noncitizens and illegal immigrants.

"My goal is to find out what happened and fix the laws to make sure they don't happen again," said Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), the committee chairman. "There is no question that there was fraud in this election. The question is how much. We need the INS records to complete this inquiry."

Latino interest groups and civil rights organizations denounced the move as a witch hunt. Some threatened legal action to block the INS from turning over any information to Congress, while others said the inquiry was intended to discourage minorities and new citizens, through intimidation, from participating in the democratic process.

"This is absolutely unprecedented," said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. "The message this sends to Latino and Asian voters is that their participation in the electoral process is regarded as suspicious."

The committee's decision has national implications. Thomas predicted the inquiry could lead to changes in the federal "motor voter law," which loosened voter registration requirements across the country and prompted millions of citizens to sign up to vote.

In separate subpoenas, the Republican-dominated committee demanded that the agency provide a list of all Orange County registered voters for whom the INS has records but for whom the agency lists no date of citizenship. The committee also demanded that the INS provide a list of local voters who registered to vote before becoming citizens.

The committee told the INS that if it could not comply with the request, it must turn over all of its computerized citizenship records and other data so the committee could do the search itself. The agency was given one week to comply with the demand.

"We look forward to meeting with the committee to discuss how we can arrive at an accurate and complete response," INS spokesman Eric Andrus said.

But it's not clear whether the agency can meet the committee's demands. The INS says that its computerized records are limited and that an accurate count would require agency workers to double-check citizenship records by hand. In a letter to the committee dated Wednesday, the INS said it could mostly complete a check on all the voters in the 46th Congressional District in five weeks.

The committee voted 5 to 3 along partisan lines to issue the subpoenas, with the panel's three Democrats issuing angry dissents.

"This search does not need to be as broad as it is, unless there is a need to serve a broader agenda," Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said.

The move was the latest in a series of Republican efforts to expose what they say are big problems in the way the federal government naturalizes new citizens and registers people to vote.

And many Republicans say the 1993 motor voter law opened the door to voter fraud.

Dornan has made numerous unsubstantiated charges that voting irregularities cost him the election, which he lost by 984 votes.

The Orange County district attorney's office is conducting a criminal investigation that has focused on Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a Santa Ana Latino-rights organization. Hermandad registered at least 1,160 people to vote before the election, most of them legal residents who were taking citizenship classes offered by the organization.

No one has been charged in connection with the voter-fraud allegations, and Hermandad has denied any wrongdoing.

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