At last, Orange County’s infamous poll guard incident seems to be over. Last week, just two days before trial was to begin, the state Republican Party settled, for an undisclosed amount, the remaining lawsuit stemming from the 1988 incident.
Earlier, the insurance companies for several other defendants, including the Orange County Republican Party, shelled out $480,000 to end litigation. All of the actions were based on the allegation that uniformed poll guards hired by Assembly candidate Curt Pringle’s campaign in the fall election four years ago had intimidated Latinos who were American citizens from exercising their right to vote.
Now it’s time to assess what lessons were learned. For answers, don’t look to Orange County’s Republican Party, which never seemed to grasp what all the fuss was about. Party officials and the others involved in the decision to post the guards at 20 Santa Ana polling places said they were reacting to rumors that Democrats might attempt voter fraud--specifically, busing in non-citizens to cast ballots--in the hot race between Pringle, who narrowly won, and Democrat Christian Theirbach. They took an all-is-fair-in-love-and-campaigns attitude toward the poll guard incident.
The state Republican Party, which was sued because some of the local officials involved were members of the GOP’s Central Committee, has maintained all along that it had nothing to do with a decision made by local officials. Indeed, the party had in place a policy that specifically precluded the use of uniformed personnel at polling places because of the inhibiting effect on potential voters. As one state party official said at the time, the poll guard incident was a “terrible, terrible symbolic insult” to the Latino community--a community that the GOP, by the way, was trying very hard to attract. He added, in what might be the defining assessment of the incident, that it was “an inherently dumb idea.”
The Legislature reacted swiftly, passing a law that made it a felony to interfere with a voter. And in what was regarded widely as a warning against a repeat performance in this year’s November election, the U.S. Justice Department stationed representatives at county polling places.
Now that litigation is over, the county GOP should make clear that nothing like the poll guard incident will be allowed to happen again. But remember, the county party felt so justified in what it did that it preferred going to trial rather than settling, as its insurance company wanted. So don’t hold your breath.