In a county where Election Day poll guards in Latino voting precincts six years ago still haunt the memories of political activists and election officials, a member of the Proposition 187 campaign committee has touched a nerve with plans to post "Only citizens can vote" flyers outside polling places Tuesday.
Although campaign instructions call for the flyers to be posted 100 feet from where voting is being conducted--in accordance with state electioneering laws--Orange County Registrar of Voters Donald Tanney said he is not sure the signs will pass legal muster.
The specter of the flyers is fueling anxiety over possible Election Day tactics, as various political factions on both sides of the volatile Proposition 187 debate set up their own monitoring systems in Orange County to ensure that no dirty tricks are played Tuesday.
And election officials are taking their own precautions, instructing precinct workers on the finer points of the law.
During his training classes for precinct workers, Tanney warned that it is illegal for anyone other than an election official to ask a voter for proof of citizenship. The law is strict in this regard, Tanney said. An election official can only challenge a voter if documentation is produced casting doubt on a voter's eligibility, such as paperwork showing that the voter is on parole for a felony conviction, for instance.
If political activists are going to approach voters, "we are going to have 1988 all over again," Tanney said in an interview.
In Orange County's 69th Assembly District--ground zero for the 1988 poll guard incident--the campaign consultant for Republican Assembly nominee Jim Morrissey has contacted the Save Our State campaign committee, backers of Proposition 187, to make sure that the "Only citizens can vote" flyers do not appear in the district Tuesday.
However, Proposition 187 leaders say the flyers are not part of their official Election Day strategy, although they are being distributed by a member of the campaign committee.
But even before the anti-illegal immigration measure captured the political spotlight this election season, Orange County Republicans, led by Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R-Orange), were vowing to monitor possible voter fraud in the 69th District, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 22 points--56% to 34%. Democrats complained that such moves would result in voter intimidation.
Tanney has urged political activists that poll watching be done within the parameters of state law, which was tightened up after the 1988 poll guard incident.
That year, Republicans posted uniformed guards at 20 polling places in predominantly Latino areas of Santa Ana, and the guards carried signs in English and Spanish warning that non-citizens could not vote. the Republican candidate, Curt Pringle, narrowly defeated Democrat Christian (Rick) Thierbach to win the Assembly seat. The Republican Party later paid $400,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by Democrats over the incident.
This year's campaign to post flyers is sponsored by Barbara A. Coe, a member of the pro-187 campaign committee and head of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform. The flyers were handed out last week during a meeting of her group in Garden Grove. Save Our State campaign co-chairman Ronald S. Prince attended the meeting.
The flyers read: "Only citizens can vote! Violators will be prosecuted!" In an accompanying newsletter, Coe instructed volunteers to post the flyers 100 feet from the entrance of the polling place, as well as "on as many telephone poles as you can surrounding the voting place."
The newsletter also stated, "Since there are no safeguards (to) insure citizenship (of voters), this is our greatest fear--that illegal aliens will 'stuff' the ballot boxes!"
Another widely circulated newsletter from Coe's group stated: "In conjunction with the SOS campaign, CCIR will engage in an intensive effort to require proof of citizenship prior to voting in any election! We will not stand idly by" and let illegal immigrants "take over" cities "as was the case in Bell Gardens," where the Latino population exceeds 80% and where four white members of the City Council were ousted from office in a 1991 special election.
Prince and Coe were unavailable for comment, and it is unknown how widely Coe has distributed the flyers.
In a recent interview, pro-187 campaign manager Robert R. Kiley credited Coe's effective information network but said she was mistaken in her description of the volunteer effort planned for Election Day. "It's not a poll-watching event," Kiley said, adding that volunteers would focus on getting out the vote.
Another pro-187 campaign co-chairman, Assemblyman Richard L. Mountjoy (R-Arcadia), said Coe "probably" took it upon herself to distribute the flyers.
"It's not part of any campaign that I know of," Mountjoy said. "It's probably just something (Coe) is doing. Otherwise they would have discussed it at some meeting that I was at."
Worried that the flyers might trip up GOP efforts to take the 69th Assembly District seat away from the Democrats, the campaign for Morrissey, the Republican nominee, said he called Prince to make sure the flyers do not show up in the district.
"They're not going to be in my district," Morrissey campaign consultant Mark Q. Thompson said. "It's nonsense."
Tanney said he has reviewed the materials distributed by Coe. He said that while she "might be trying to get a very technical defense" by suggesting that the flyers be posted beyond 100 feet from the polling place, it is possible that someone will complain that the signs intimidate voters.
"If something like this gets done in certain precincts in these high Hispanic or Vietnamese communities, my suspicion is it's going to be sensitive to some people even if it's done 100 feet, 2 inches," Tanney said.
"I can see a scenario where there is going to be some potential plaintiff out there who says, 'I don't care. It may have been 200 feet, but I was intimidated when you handed me that thing.' I can imagine that having gone through the whole court case six years ago," Tanney said.
If the flyers do show up Tuesday in minority voting precincts, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund will probably challenge them, said John Palacio, the group's local director.
"Any attempt to put those notices out like that would be no different than what happened in 1988 because they intend to intimidate voters," Palacio said.
With no decision yet on whether the U.S. Justice Department will send federal monitors to Southern California, Latino activists and Democrats in Orange County are planning to fan out Tuesday across central Orange County--in the largely-ethnic area of the county--with "quick response" teams to report any problems, should they occur.
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Conroy, who initially led other Republicans on a campaign to stop what they described as possible voter fraud by Democrats, will have volunteers "with a heightened sensitivity" monitoring for anyone who tries to vote twice.
Conroy's aide, Jim Bieber, said there will be no attempt to intimidate voters. "Nobody will be challenged or confronted, but there will be investigative work done later on," after the election, Bieber said.
Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell contributed to this report.
In anticipation of Election Day tactics by various political groups who plan to monitor polling places, election officials are reminding voters of their rights:
* Voters may refuse any flyers being distributed outside a polling place. (Electioneering is not allowed within 100 feet of a polling place.)
* Voters need not provide proof of citizenship to anyone outside the polling place. Only a member of the precinct board can challenge the eligibility of a voter after he or she has signed the roster, but before the ballot is issued. The election officer must have "sufficient probable cause" based on factual knowledge that the voter may be ineligible to vote before a challenge can be made.
* No one may interfere with a voter's right to cast a secret ballot.
Source: Orange County registrar of voters