CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / PROPOSITION 187 : Plan for 'Citizens Only' Flyer at Polls Raises Fears : Election officials are wary of tactic, and stress that activists should not demand proof of voters' citizenship.


A member of the Proposition 187 campaign committee has reopened old wounds with plans to post "only citizens can vote" flyers outside polling places Tuesday.

The plan 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. The flyers read: "Only citizens can vote! Violators will be prosecuted!"

The presence of Election Day poll guards in Latino voting precincts six years ago still haunts the memories of political activists and election officials here.

Although Coe's 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 Proposition 187--which would deny education and most government services to illegal immigrants--set up their own monitoring systems in Orange County to ensure that no dirty tricks are committed Tuesday.

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.

"If (political activists) are going to (approach voters), we are going to have 1988 all over again," Tanney said in an interview.

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. Curt Pringle, the Republican candidate in what was then the 72nd Assembly District, narrowly defeated Democrat Christian (Rick) Thierbach to win the seat. The Republican Party paid $400,000 to settle a suit brought by Democrats over the incident.

The campaign consultant for this year's Republican nominee for the 69th Assembly District seat, 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 56% to 34%. Democrats complained that such moves would result in voter intimidation.

Tanney has advised political activists that the poll watching must be done within the parameters of state law, which was tightened after the 1988 poll guard incident.

In a newsletter that accompanied the flyers at the Garden Grove meeting, Coe instructed volunteers to post the flyers 100 feet from the entrance of a 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) ensure 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." In that city, where the Latino population exceeds 80%, four white members of the City Council were ousted from office in a 1991 special election.

Coe and Proposition 187 campaign co-chairman Ronald S. Prince were unavailable for comment, and it is unknown how widely Coe has distributed the flyers.

In a recent interview, Proposition 187 campaign manager Robert R. Kiley credited Coe's information network as effective, 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 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 win the 69th Assembly District seat away from Democrats, a campaign aide for Morrissey 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 although she "might be trying to get a very technical defense" by suggesting that the flyers be posted 100 feet from polling places, 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" away, Tanney said.

Times staff writer Patrick McDonnell contributed to this report.

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