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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

U.S. to Monitor Some Polling Places

Justice Department says it is dispatching three lawyers to watch for any intimidation of minority voters in Southern California.

November 03, 1998|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The U.S. Justice Department said Monday that it will send three of its voting rights lawyers to monitor Southern California polling places today to ensure that minority voters are not intimidated at their precincts.

One lawyer is assigned to Orange County, where charges of possible voter intimidation have arisen in almost every election since 1988. County Registrar Rosalyn Lever said she was told Monday that the attorney will be "in and around Orange County."

Two others will be stationed in Los Angeles to field complaints from Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

The lawyers are part of a team of 141 poll observers that Justice Department officials said will be deployed today in five states as voters pick candidates in federal, state and local elections.

Southern California is the only place observers are being sent to monitor possible intimidation of minority voters, according to a Justice Department statement released Monday. Observers will be sent elsewhere to oversee compliance with other provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

In Northern California, 10 federal observers in Alameda County will monitor the availability of voting materials and other assistance for Chinese-speaking voters.

In New York City and in counties in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, federal observers are being sent to ensure the availability of native-language voting materials and proper election day voter assistance.

The Justice Department also issued a stern warning Monday that videotaping minority voters at or near the polls could violate the Voting Rights Act. The warning was in response to a Republican Party plan in two North Carolina counties to tape voters, who Republicans claim, vote more than once in heavily Democratic precincts.

"The Justice Department is committed to vigorously enforcing our nation's voting laws," Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said. "And we will not tolerate harassment of minority voters."

No problems are anticipated in Los Angeles, although observers are expected to respond to any issues, said Chief Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard Drooyan.

Concerns about voter intimidation in Orange County have surfaced in nearly every election since uniformed security guards were hired in 1988 by Republicans and the Assembly campaign of Curt Pringle to patrol Latino polling places in Santa Ana.

A Justice Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the agency began monitoring the activities of poll watchers across the United States eight years ago, primarily in response to Orange County's incident.

The League of United Latin American Citizens has lodged official requests for federal observers in every election since then. An observer was sent for the general election in 1994.

"Democracy finally will have a chance at the polls in Orange County," said Arturo Montez, who monitors voting rights for league. "Now the responsibility falls on the Latino community to get to the polls."

Central Orange County again is the site of several hotly fought races, including the rematch between Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and Republican Robert K. Dornan, the longtime congressman she upset two years ago. Assemblyman Jim Morrissey (R-Anaheim) and state Sen. Rob Hurtt (R-Garden Grove) also face serious challenges from Democrats Lou Correa and Joe Dunn.

Dornan challenged his election loss two years ago, claiming he was robbed of his seat by votes illegally cast by noncitizens. A House investigation ruled that 743 noncitizens had voted in the race, not enough to overturn the results.

The U.S. attorney's office and the FBI will operate a separate unit today to receive citizen complaints of voter intimidation and fraud in Southern California. The unit is assembled for presidential primaries and for every general election. Voters can report possible violations by calling federal prosecutors at (213) 894-2434 or the FBI at (310) 477-6565.

Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, it is illegal to use intimidation, threats or coercion to prevent people from voting; or to bribe voters, forge ballots, alter vote tallies or coerce the votes of the poor, the elderly and the illiterate.

Federal law also protects voters' rights to mark their ballots in private and to be assisted by a person of their choice, if they desire.

Volunteer attorneys working with the state Democratic and Republican parties also will field calls on election day from campaigns complaining of voter intimidation or other election day problems.

Secretary of State Bill Jones' office also operates a voter fraud hotline for complaints at (800) 345-VOTE. The office has issued public warnings before every election since 1996 that intimidation of voters will not be tolerated, spokeswoman Beth Miller said.

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