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U.S. May Order Poll Observers to 46th District

Elections: Monitors expected in Central County, site of past complaints of voter abuses.

October 23, 1998|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The federal government may send poll observers to a hotly contested central Orange County congressional district to oversee voting during the Nov. 3 election.

A U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman said Thursday that officials are considering whether to monitor election-day activities in the 46th Congressional District, where Latino voters have complained in the past about intimidation.

Spokeswoman Christine DiBartolo in Washington would not provide details until the final decision is made.

The department, however, is expected to send monitors, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, the local arm of the department.

Orange County Registrar Rosalyn Lever said a Justice attorney called her this week to discuss sending a voting-rights attorney to the county for the election.

Federal observers have been dispatched throughout the country since passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Their role is to assure that voters aren't intimidated and that proper voting materials and assistance are available.

The 46th District is home to Orange County's largest concentration of minority voters. There also are half a dozen hotly contested local and state races on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Orange County's marquee race is the fight over the 46th between Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and Republican challenger Robert K. Dornan, whom she upset two years ago. The battle is one of the most expensive and widely watched congressional races nationally.

Dornan challenged her 1996 victory, claiming she won with the help of votes cast largely by noncitizens. The House decided not to overturn the election after a 14-month investigation, but it did find that 743 votes were cast by immigrants who registered before becoming citizens. Sanchez won by 984 votes.

In Orange County's central cities, voter controversies have been a way of life since 1988.

That year, a civil-rights lawsuit was filed against the Orange County Republican Party and Assembly candidate Curt Pringle for posting uniformed security guards at 20 predominately Latino precincts in Santa Ana. Pringle and the county GOP settled the suit for $400,000.

The League of United Latin American Citizens has asked federal officials since 1991 to monitor election-day activities in Orange County, said Arturo Montez, LULAC's state voting-rights chairman.

"We're pleased because the Department of Justice has recognized there's a problem here behind the 'Orange Curtain,' " Montez said. "We've put a lot of effort in as an organization to double the [Latino] voter rolls. We have some very highly competitive races."

A government source familiar with the county's voting history said officials are sensitive to the controversy stirred by the challenge to Sanchez's 1996 election and want to assure there are no problems at the polls this time.

Several weeks ago, Latino leaders became leery when Dornan, in response to a question by a military veteran at a campaign event, encouraged veterans to volunteer as observers at the polls in the 46th District.

Sanchez chief of staff Steve Jost said Sanchez didn't ask for federal observers but would welcome them, particularly in light of Dornan's comments.

"With [the Republicans'] track record out there, some folks might have reason to be concerned," Jost said.

Dornan's camp also would welcome federal observers.

"This is something that we've all embraced as a tool to guarantee the power of the vote for all Americans, including Latino Americans," said Mark Dornan, the challenger's son and campaign manager. "Intimidation should not be tolerated."

Latino groups contend that the 1988 poll-guard incident, and later polling place attempts to warn against noncitizen voting, have a chilling effect on voter participation among Latinos, particularly first-time voters.

In 1989, the state Legislature passed a law making it illegal to post uniformed guards at polling places or for voters to be impeded or harassed in any way.

Concerns about voter intimidation resurfaced in 1994 and 1996 when the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, founded by Huntington Beach resident Barbara Coe, distributed fliers to members warning, "Only citizens can vote!" She asked members to post the fliers or pass them out at least 100 feet from polling areas.

Coe defended the action as legal and complained that she had been harassed by FBI agents investigating the fliers.

Also in 1994, then-Assemblyman Mickey Conroy, a Republican from Orange, said his campaign would place volunteer poll watchers at heavily Latino precincts in Central County because of fears that noncitizens would "stuff the ballot box" for Democrats.

In the 1996 general election, the Orange County district attorney's office launched an investigation into possible voter fraud based on information from the registrar.

The investigation eventually targeted Hermandad Mexicana Nacional of Santa Ana, a Latino rights group active in registering voters. The probe ended last year when an Orange County grand jury decided not to issue indictments.

In addition, Dornan filed complaints with the prosecutor and others, accusing Hermandad of illegally registering voters. His House challenge to the election focused on many of the noncitizens he alleged were registered by Hermandad.

Times staff writer Esther Schrader contributed to this report.

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