A measure to outlaw the posting of uniformed guards at polling places cleared its first legislative hurdle Wednesday when it won approval of the Senate Elections Committee.
The bill, by Sen. Milton Marks (D-San Francisco), is the first legislation drafted in reaction to the Republican Party’s hiring of 20 private guards to monitor Latino voters as they went to the polls in Santa Ana last Nov. 8.
GOP officials have said the guards were hired after the party heard rumors that non-citizens would be bused to Santa Ana to vote illegally for state Assembly candidate Christian (Rick) Thierbach, who was running against Curt Pringle, the Republican from Garden Grove who won the election by fewer than 900 votes.
But Marks said Wednesday that he believes that the Republican tactic was a “political trick” designed to intimidate Latinos and discourage them from voting.
“That situation in Orange County was terrible,” Marks said. “I think it was successful to some extent. I am convinced that many people did not vote because of the intimidation.”
It is already a felony to intimidate or coerce someone into voting or not voting. Orange County law enforcement authorities are investigating to determine whether the guards posted in the 72nd District intimidated any voters. A separate civil suit seeking to overturn the election result is pending in U.S. District Court.
But Marks’ bill, which would not apply retroactively to the Orange County incident, would automatically make it a crime to stand guard in uniform or post a uniformed guard within 100 feet of the polls.
The legislation would not apply to police officers on official business or at the polls to cast a vote, or to private guards hired by city or county election officials. The measure also exempts security guards who normally patrol a location, such as a church or school, that is used as a polling place on Election Day.
The bill also would make it illegal for any person other than an election official or a member of a precinct board to receive a completed ballot from a voter. This provision would not apply to anyone legally entitled to collect or return absentee ballots or someone who is legally allowed to assist a handicapped voter.
Offenses would be punishable as either felonies or misdemeanors, according to a judge’s discretion.
The bill was supported by the secretary of state’s office and Eric Vega, a spokesman for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund. There was no opposition.
“We think it’s important to increase the penalties for anything that plays upon the historic fears that Hispanics have had about figures of authority,” Vega said. “Many people of Hispanic background have been intimidated by police, by the (Immigration and Naturalization Service), and will take a second look and maybe decide not to vote if someone is standing there in a uniform near the polls.”
The bill was approved by a 4-0 vote and sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Pringle, who is a member of the Assembly Committee on Elections, Reapportionment and Constitutional Amendments, said in an interview that he views the Marks bill and a similar measure by Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) as “purely political, partisan bills.”
Pringle would not say whether he supports or opposes the bill.