Pressing ahead with its investigation into the 46th Congressional District election, the House Oversight Committee is seeking voting and immigration records containing signatures of about 4,700 people it believes might not have been citizens when they registered to vote.
The committee likely would use the signatures to help determine who was ineligible to vote in the contested 1996 election won by Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), according to sources involved in the investigation.
The Orange County registrar of voters has already begun making copies of registration affidavits, which contain voters' signatures, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service has been approached with a similar request for signatures contained in its files.
The INS and the House committee have had "informal discussions about obtaining additional materials within the naturalization files that contain signatures," said an INS official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
House staff members also have discussed with INS staff about "getting outside handwriting experts to review the material," said a government source involved in the investigation.
However, no formal request for the immigration documents has been made, an INS spokesman said.
Democrats and Republicans have disagreed sharply over whether it is possible to verify that someone was ineligible to vote by matching his or her county voting registration record with INS records.
Contending that INS records are replete with errors, Democrats have maintained that only by doing interviews is it possible to verify that a voter might have registered before becoming a citizen. INS officials in Washington have supported that view.
Republicans, however, have insisted that it is possible to get a verified match of a voter with INS records by using material in those files, including names, birth dates and addresses. This is the first time that congressional officials have suggested using a signature check as a further way of verifying whether a voter was legally entitled to cast a ballot.
INS files contain signatures of immigrants on citizenship applications as well as on naturalization papers. Voter registration affidavits are also signed.
Wylie Aitken, attorney for Sanchez, said use of handwriting matches "would raise as many questions as it will answer." Aitken said signatures change over time and might vary depending on the circumstances under which they are signed.
Aitken said that even if signatures resolved the issue of identity, it still would not settle claims that INS records are inaccurate, such as misidentifying whether someone is a naturalized citizen or not.
"If INS miscategorizes an individual [as a noncitizen], then being able to say you have a signature match won't resolve the fact that the INS made an error and the person really is a citizen," Aitken said.
Aitken also questioned how the committee would "publicly disclose their results so the accuracy of what they do can be tested."
A three-member task force of the oversight committee for 11 months has been considering a challenge to Sanchez's 984-vote victory filed by the man she defeated, former Rep. Robert K. Dornan.
A committee spokesman declined to discuss the signature match issue but confirmed that the panel has talked with the Orange County registrar of voters about sending oversight staff to Santa Ana to assist with a request for copies of the 4,762 affidavits.
"Until Monday rolls around, we have no more official comment," committee spokesman Jason Poblete said.
However, The Times has obtained copies of letters from Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) to the INS and county Registrar of Voters Rosalyn Lever requesting cooperation. Both were sent last week. Neither letter specifically mentions obtaining signatures for matching purposes.
In addition to those letters, the GOP leaders in the House and California Secretary of State Bill Jones last month agreed to work together to come to a final determination about the number of votes cast by ineligible voters.
The GOP leaders agreed to get the INS to provide Jones with "verified" information about citizenship at the time of registration and asked Jones to then certify which votes were improperly cast.
Undersecretary of State Rob Lapsley said the lists included the names of 4,762 people who voted in the 46th Congressional District election and who have turned up as preliminary matches in checks between INS lists and the voter lists done by Congress.
The letter to Lever asks that she provide the committee with "a copy of the registration affidavit form" for the people on the list by Nov. 14. The committee has already obtained a computer tape of all the information on the forms except for signatures.
Lever said her staff had begun to produce the copies and told a lawyer for the House committee that it could take two months to complete the work.