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California and the West

GOP Leaders Present Plan to Tighten Voter Scrutiny

Politics: Proposals, including poll watching, are aired at closed-door session during national meeting. State party officials have not decided whether to back the ideas.

January 18, 1998|PETER M. WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Republican Party officials presented a plan to a national meeting here this weekend that would place poll watchers at key precincts on election day and discussed a variety 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 that they believe would intimidate citizens and discourage them from voting, including the presentation of photo IDs before a ballot can be cast.

California Republicans say they are mindful of the political firestorm that could be created by calling for tighter scrutiny at polling places and 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 the proposal on poll watchers.

California's GOP has not decided whether to implement the national plan, he said, which must be considered by each state party before it is approved.

Democrats are eager to capitalize on the issue, saying it would limit the centuries-long commitment to expand voting rights and make 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."

Although the 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 in which those who witness possible voter fraud could complain to authorities. It 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 1981 New Jersey election, and the memo 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, which included presentations on alleged voter fraud in California and New York. Schroeder, a lawyer, is representing ousted congressman Robert K. Dornan, who has asked Congress to overturn his 1996 loss to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), claiming that voting by noncitizens and other irregularities cost him the election.

Poll watching is severely restricted in California and election officials cannot require proof of citizenship or a form of identification either at the time of registration or voting. In addition, only the staff of the local registrar of voters and appointed precinct board members may challenge a voter at the polls, said Orange County Deputy Registrar Don Taylor, and even that "must be based on their own personal knowledge."

Even then, a challenged voter can cast a ballot if he declares under oath that he meets the voting requirements, he said.

However, that could change if some Republican leaders have their way.

GOP leaders in Congress last year held hearings on numerous bills that would tighten registration and voting rules. The bills include proposals to require photo IDs, Social Security numbers and proof of citizenship for all voters; eliminate registration by mail and purge from voting rolls people who fail to cast a ballot in several consecutive federal elections.

Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), chairman of the House Oversight Committee looking at the contested Sanchez-Dornan contest, and GOP leader Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach) have agreed to fashion the measures into a comprehensive bill and bring it to a vote by the end of March, said Thomas spokesman Jason Poblette.

Ideally, the leadership would present one bill that would consolidate all the "ballot integrity proposals" and that "would be a mantra of the party," he said.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are girding for a major battle.

"I think this is going to become one of the top five issues of the coming year," said Steve Jost, chief of staff to Sanchez.

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