Commerce Councilman’s Methods in Campaign for Absentee Votes Questioned

Times Staff Writer

The absentee ballot drive that helped Councilman Robert J. Cornejo win a second term of office in Tuesday’s election has stirred controversy at City Hall.

Councilwoman Ruth R. Aldaco said last week she suspects Cornejo may have misled voters when he hand-carried absentee ballots to their houses. The result was that some voters cast fewer votes than they were entitled to, she said. Each voter could have cast three votes in last Tuesday’s at-large election to fill three council seats.

“It appears it was a bullet vote, that he had people voting for him and no one else,” Aldaco said. “I want to see if there was any criminal wrongdoing because of misrepresentation.”


Aldaco said she asked City Atty. William Camil to investigate the allegations, but Camil said there is no basis for an investigation.

‘Nothing Illegal’

“I think Councilman Cornejo made very effective use of the absentee ballot law, but all of it was within the law,” Camil said. “I saw nothing illegal.”

Aldaco said she has contacted the district attorney’s office and will file a formal request for an investigation.

Cornejo, 53, said he made no attempt to mislead voters.

“It’s quite clear on the ballot (that they could vote for three candidates),” Cornejo said. “Their choice of candidates was certainly up to them.”

Cornejo, who was first elected to the City Council in 1984, finished second in Tuesday’s balloting. Ruben C. Batres led with 1,039 votes, according to unofficial results. Cornejo received 925 votes, and Art Navarro won the third seat with 876 votes. Incumbent Arturo Marquez, with 865 votes, failed to win relection. Candidate Manuel L. Jimenez received 772 votes.

But Cornejo was the big winner in the absentee balloting. He received 198 absentee votes, according to a city official. Marquez received 92 absentee votes, Jimenez 79, Batres 75 and Navarro 71. The final canvass is to be completed by Tuesday.


Aldaco said she knows of at least two cases in which voters requested that their absentee ballots be invalidated because they had cast fewer than three votes. In both cases, Cornejo had hand-carried the absentee ballots to their homes, she said. Both voters cast new ballots.

Aldaco said she became aware of the cases on Election Day through an acquaintance who was at one of the polling areas.

“This old man went to the polls to vote, and they told him he had already voted,” Aldaco said. “He said he had only voted for one and (wanted) to vote for two more. It’s sad because it’s taking away his right to vote. If it’s not wrong legally, it’s wrong morally.”

Aldaco said Cornejo had urged the man to vote for him, and that the man had not realized it was his only chance to vote. Aldaco said she personally drove the man to City Hall to vote anew. The councilwoman declined to reveal the man’s identity, saying she wanted to protect his privacy.

Distributed Ballots

Cornejo staged his effective absentee ballot campaign by first distributing absentee ballot applications. The majority of the applicants agreed to have their blank ballots sent to his house--161 absentee ballots were sent to Cornejo’s residence, according to figures from the city clerk’s office.

State election code--as interpreted by case law--permits multiple absentee ballots to be sent to a single residence, said John Mott-Smith, an elections analyst with the secretary of state’s elections division.


Cornejo and his campaign workers then took the ballots to the voters, and in most cases, mailed the ballots after the votes were cast, Cornejo said.

“The voter votes, seals the envelope, signs and dates it and we provide the postage for them,” he said.

Cornejo said his absentee ballot campaign was positive because it increased voter participation.

“The idea behind it is to encourage the people to vote,” Cornejo said.