The county registrar of voters said Thursday, as the controversy continued to grow over a GOP decision to station uniformed guards at polling places, that he had warned Republican officials 4 weeks before the election not to challenge voters at the polls.
Registrar Donald F. Tanney said he issued the warning at a meeting requested by two Republicans involved in the race in the 72nd Assembly District.
“They inquired about challenging voters about their eligibility to vote as they arrived to cast their ballot,” Tanney said. “I strongly cautioned them about any form of interference.”
GOP County Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes has taken responsibility for the decision to station guards at 20 polling places in heavily Latino areas of the 72nd District on Election Day, and pressure was building Thursday for Fuentes’ ouster.
Fuentes said the guards were hired because of anonymous tips that Democrats were planning to bus to the polls large numbers of voters who had registered illegally.
The guards were sent to the polls carrying large signs in English and Spanish warning non-citizens not to vote. The same signs were also posted in various Latino neighborhoods several days before the election.
‘Just Hispanic Precincts’
State Republican Party Chairman Bob Naylor said Thursday that the GOP has guidelines specifically precluding the use of uniformed personnel at polling places because there is a “heavy-handed look to it that could cause people not to exercise their perfectly legitimate (voting) rights.”
Naylor added that he was outraged by the use of uniformed guards: “It’s a terrible, terrible symbolic insult to the Hispanic community to have these put in just Hispanic precincts.”
In Tuesday’s election, Republican Curt Pringle defeated Democrat Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach in the 72nd District by a margin of fewer than 700 votes, with the absentee ballot count still incomplete.
Richard Martinez, executive director of the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, said there may be legal grounds to void both the 72nd District and Santa Ana city elections if voters were intimidated or discouraged from voting. The polling places at which the guards were posted are in Santa Ana.
Martinez said a decision will be made “within a day or two” on whether to file a lawsuit.
That decision, he said, will be based in part on the findings of a survey of Latino voters being conducted by a political consultant in one of the Santa Ana council races.
“This has a chilling effect on voters, particularly first-time voters who are gingerly taking their first steps in our political process,” said Martinez, whose nonpartisan group was formed to register Latinos in five states, including California. “This kind of effort was designed to confuse and discourage legal voters from casting their ballots.”
In another development, the Thierbach campaign released to The Times Orange County Edition on Thursday photographs that campaign officials said show one of the guards seated inside a polling place at Santa Ana High School on Election Day. The unidentified alleged guard in the photo is sitting between a man said by the campaign to be an election official and what appears to be a ballot box.
The pre-election meeting with Tanney had been requested by Peter W. Godfrey of the county GOP Central Committee and Newport Beach political consultant Michael R. Williams, the registrar said. Godfrey, county chairman of Fair Count ’88, a statewide group of Republican lawyers reviewing registrars’ procedures, said Thursday that he is a Pringle supporter. Williams coordinated the hiring and placement of security guards.
Warning Not Recalled
Godfrey said Thursday that the meeting was held to review election procedures and added that he did not recall Tanney’s warning about challenging voters.
He said his inquiries had to do with absentee ballots and registration affidavits.
Tanney said Godfrey and Williams told him that they had received information that “vanloads of illegal citizens” were to be transported into the district on Election Day.
The registrar said he was also told that “a number of people” had illegally registered to vote.
“They were concerned about ensuring that nothing irregular took place,” Tanney recalled of the meeting. “But there was never any mention of uniformed observers. I never even thought they would go that far.”
As for the reports of non-citizens being transported into the 72nd District to vote, Tanney said: “I find it stretches my imagination a little too far.” At a press conference Thursday, Orange County Latino leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties sharply condemned the use of the guards and called for Fuentes’ immediate resignation.
“It’s not only illegal,” state Republican Central Committee member Raoul Silva said of the guards. “It’s immoral. It’s un-American, it’s unconstitutional and it’s despicable.”
‘Goes Against Principles’
Ramon Curiel, a Santa Ana public relations consultant from the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said: “To have something like this occur right here in our own neighborhood--it really goes against the principles that both parties expressed during the campaign.”
Nor was the talk of ousting Fuentes limited to the Latino community.
“Unless this is dealt with effectively and quickly, it’s something that could leave a real bad taste and hurt the party long term,” said one Republican activist who had been in on several of the discussions among GOP leaders.
Speaking on the condition he would not be identified, he added that there seems to be an understanding that hiring the security guards was not Fuentes’ idea but that he was in a position to stop it and did not.
Fuentes could not be reached for comment. County GOP executive director Greg Haskins said, however, that Fuentes should be credited with successful voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts that resulted in Republican victories throughout the county.
“This single incident, that is yet to be sorted out, simply can’t overshadow such a fantastic operation,” Haskins said. “Until we get the straight story of exactly what happened, I think calling for anybody’s resignation is entirely inappropriate.”
Fuentes’ removal would take a vote of the 67-member Republican Central Committee, which is scheduled to meet Nov. 21.
Popular Among Volunteers
Fuentes is popular among rank-and-file GOP volunteers who dominate the committee. But some believe that Fuentes might be persuaded to resign before his 2-year term ends in January.
Another Republican familiar with the controversy confirmed that GOP leaders are talking among themselves about Fuentes’ resignation.
“There may be some question whether they want to strip it from him now or wait 3 months and let him go gracefully,” the Republican said.
Bruce Nestande, co-chairman of the presidential campaign in the county for Vice President George Bush, urged those involved to “come clean” to clear the Republican Party of blame.
“It just makes you weak in the knees to think that this kind of activity was perpetrated by members of our party and leading officials of our party,” Nestande said. “Anybody who has that thought process ought not be involved in our party.”
Santa Ana political consultant John Palacio said he has begun an effort to interview Latino voters in the city to assess whether anyone felt intimidated or harassed at the polls.
Palacio, who ran Zeke Hernandez’s unsuccessful City Council campaign in Santa Ana, said the guards could have affected the council race as well as the election in the 72nd District.
Other Identification Efforts
Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sepulveda)--an ally of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who helped Thierbach on his campaign--said Thursday that other efforts are under way to identify people who may not have voted because of the guards.
“There is something more fundamental than whether a Democrat or a Republican wins the 72nd District,” Katz said.
Frank P. Barbaro, Thierbach’s lawyer, said he is reviewing the state Election Code to determine whether laws were violated. He said he is looking specifically at a statute that makes it a felony for anyone to pay someone to induce a voter to refrain from voting or stay away from the polls.
Barbaro said the Democratic Party will challenge Pringle’s victory if the final tally after all absentee ballots have been counted gives him a 500-vote margin or less.
“It’s possible Rick could win this election, and then the ball is in the other court,” Barbaro said. “We’re not talking about a 10,000-vote win here. We’re talking about a close election.”