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Lesson of Poll Guards Must Not Be Obscured

A $400,000 out-of-court settlement has been signed by the five Latino voters who sued Republican Party officials for stationing uniformed guards at 20 polling places in the 72nd Assembly District last year. That ends the formal civil proceedings, but it should not be the last that Orange County residents hear of this case.

Documents disclosed last Wednesday by the five plaintiffs serve as a public warning that there is an ever-present need to vigilantly guard the voting and civil rights of all residents lest political strategists again try to play fast and loose in election campaigns in order to win at any cost.

The documents also focus attention on local and federal agencies that, after more than a year, are still conducting criminal investigations into the incidents. Democrats and Latinos accused Orange County Republicans and Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove), who narrowly won office in that November, 1988, election, of attempting to intimidate voters, especially recently naturalized citizens and Latinos, and scare them away from polling places. Pringle and GOP officials denied the charge and claimed they hired the guards because they heard rumors that Democrats would try to bring illegal voters to the polls.

One document made public at a press conference last Wednesday was a deposition from Assemblyman John R. Lewis (R-Orange), who confirmed that he once joked with Thomas A. Fuentes, the county GOP chairman, and Greg Haskin, the county GOP executive director, about the possibility of driving green vans around polling places to give the impression that federal immigration agents were working in the area. The idea was never pursued, but the attitude it reflected prevailed to the extent that the private guards were placed at the polls.

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Also released Wednesday was a pre-election memo from a political strategist to a Pringle campaign consultant outlining the security guard program and noting that the guards would be in uniform and that “voters would be challenged.”

Earlier, the Legislature reacted to these heavy-handed tactics by passing, with bipartisan support, a law outlawing the use of uniformed guards at polling places. The county registrar of voters and the security firm that provided the guards have also agreed to out-of-court settlements of the civil suit. But still needed are a final determination on whether any criminal violations were involved--and constant voter vigilance against any such dirty tricks in the future.


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