INDIAN WELLS — Republican Party officials presented a plan to a national membership meeting here that would place poll watchers at key precincts on election day and discussed a range of proposals from GOP congressional leaders that seek to tighten federal laws on voter registration.
The GOP's so-called "ballot integrity" plans were outlined during closed-door sessions at the Republican National Committee meeting and contained in a 17-page memorandum obtained by The Times. When told of the proposal, Democrats vowed to fight any legislation they believe would intimidate citizens from voting, including having them present a photo ID before casting a ballot.
For many in Orange County, the proposed poll watchers would be reminiscent of the uniformed security guards that the GOP stationed outside voting sites in Assemblyman Curt Pringle's district on election day in 1988. Republicans ended up paying $400,000 to settle a civil lawsuit brought by several Latinos outraged by the incident.
California Republicans say they are mindful of the political firestorm that would undoubtedly be created by calling for tighter scrutiny at polling places, let alone wide-scale alterations in voter registration and balloting rules.
"What we do has to be done tactfully, tastefully and properly from a legal perspective," said Rich Lambros, executive director of the state GOP, speaking of a national party directive to recruit poll watchers nationwide.
The state party has not decided whether to implement the national plan, he said, which still must be considered by each state before it is approved at the local level. Latinos and others are still upset with the party for its role in endorsing several successful ballot initiatives that are widely perceived as harmful to minorities.
Democrats are eager to capitalize on the proposal, saying it limits a centuries-long national ideal of expanding voting rights to all and making it as convenient as possible to cast ballots.
"The problem is too few people voting," said Bob Mulholland, political advisor to the California Democratic Party. "My God, photo IDs, that is ridiculous. The Republicans have to remember what that is symbolic of. . . . People did this in the South before the '60s. That is a terrible message to send to minorities."
While the Republican National Committee held an open debate Friday over whether to withhold money for GOP candidates who do not oppose late-term abortions, ultimately deciding against such a proposal, its discussions of "ballot integrity" took place behind closed doors.
The poll-watch plan, presented to party executive directors Thursday, calls for party leaders in each state to battle "vote tampering" by recruiting poll watchers and "challengers" to "target precincts."
The 17-page memorandum, presented by the national Republican Party's attorney, includes a checklist of how to proceed, including sample forms with which those who witness possible voter fraud could complain to authorities, outlines what it considers "serious forms of voter fraud" and directs party leaders in each state to pick "a poll-watcher chairman to oversee the day-to-day operation" of the campaign.
It also notes that the party entered into consent decrees in federal court in New Jersey and Louisiana in the 1980s agreeing to refrain from poll-watcher programs "disproportionately" targeting districts with substantial racial or ethnic populations. In its memo, the GOP acknowledges violating the consent decree in a New Jersey election and urges caution in future elections.
The memo notes that the party doesn't "sanction or condone ANY attempt to prevent an eligible registered voter from voting."
In considering whether to implement the proposal, state GOP leaders are weighing a number of factors, Lambros said, including the plan's volatile nature and the competing demands of simultaneously staffing get-out-the-vote and poll-watcher efforts.
State GOP Chairman Michael Schroeder was among several speakers at Saturday's closed seminar on ballot integrity that included presentations on alleged voter fraud in California and New York state. Schroeder, a lawyer, is representing ousted congressman Robert K. Dornan, who has asked Congress to overturn his 984-vote 1996 loss to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), claiming voting by noncitizens and other irregularities cost him the election.
California Secretary of State Bill Jones, whose office has been investigating registration and voting by noncitizens in Orange County in 1996, was scheduled to speak but his flight was canceled. Jones has advocated an anti-fraud program that includes calling for citizen naturalization numbers and Social Security numbers on registration documents, as well as requiring some form of identification at the time of voting.
Reached later in the day, Jones said he supports changes in federal law to permit the monitoring of those who register and vote, but is concerned about the poll-watcher proposal.