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Little Evidence Found for Voter Fraud Claims : Election: Officials agree registration lists are flawed, but say charges of widespread illegal balloting are unfounded.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Allegations of balloting misdeeds are floating through the air like the yellow leaves of autumn.

U.S. Senate candidate Mike Huffington, refusing to concede defeat, raises concerns that “massive voting irregularities” may have led to his loss.

Backers of the victorious Proposition 187 form a voter fraud task force, citing reports of non-citizens going to the polls.

A Los Angeles County supervisor demands an investigation into purported incidents of voter registration fraud.

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Critics bemoan the degree to which California’s voting laws rely on the honor and goodwill of residents. They say that the voting rolls are clogged with deadwood and that the system--which does not demand proof of voter identification--is ripe for abuse.

But just how much evidence is there that the system is indeed abused on a widespread basis?

Election officials concede that there are problems with registration lists--because of both innocent mistakes and deliberate fraud by paid bounty hunters who register voters for political campaigns. But they insist there is no indication that those problems have translated into widespread illegal balloting.

“We do have a lot of duplicates on the file because we don’t have an effective purge program,” acknowledged acting Secretary of State Tony Miller. “On the other hand, there is very little evidence of actual voter fraud.”

A recent search of voting records by the Orange County registrar’s office backs up that statement. Spurred by allegations of illegal registrations, the office combed the Orange County registration roll of 1.2 million voters. Workers found about 5,000 pairs of duplicate names. “But in every one of these cases,” Orange County Registrar Donald Tanney said, “we could not find any evidence that people had voted twice.”

Even those who are raising the issue are hard pressed to substantiate their claims.

“We can’t produce the hard-core evidence at the moment,” said Bill King of the voter fraud task force formed by Proposition 187 backers--who suspect non-citizens illegally voted against the anti-illegal immigration initiative. “But I’m confident we’ll turn up enough to make the pursuit of this worthwhile.”

Likewise, Jennifer Grossman, communications director of the Huffington campaign, cites “a flood of phone calls” about suspicious activities when asked for proof of improper balloting. "(We’re) going to follow up on leads and find evidence if evidence indeed exists,” she said.

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Of course, Huffington is not alone in seeing the specter of fraud.

In the days after this month’s elections, Republican Rich Sybert raised the issue in his failed attempt to unseat U.S. Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Woodland Hills). Elsewhere in the nation, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey has cited “hundreds” of reports of voting irregularities in her refusal to concede that she lost the Maryland gubernatorial race by about 5,400 votes.

Indeed, some view complaints from the Huffington and Proposition 187 camps as little more than political sour grapes.

“It seems to me that what they’re doing has more of a partisan and ideological twist to it than actual fact,” said Larry Berg, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

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Others complain that sweeping fraud allegations can have a corrosive effect on the public’s opinion of the election system.

“For a candidate for public office to make allegations of voter fraud without first carefully documenting the evidence and having persuasive evidence . . . is outrageous and irresponsible,” said Tim Hodson, director of the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.

Backers of Huffington and Proposition 187 emphatically dismissed such characterizations. “If there’s fraud, then an investigation of fraud is a healthy thing and anyone who opposes such an investigation is merely covering up the inadequacies of the current system,” Grossman retorted.

Two years ago, state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) cried foul in her narrow loss to Yvonne Brathwaite Burke in a Los Angeles County supervisor’s race. After a lengthy probe, the county district attorney’s office reported that “our entire investigation revealed nothing more substantive than rumors, conjecture, speculation and innuendo.”

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The office simultaneously investigated reports that dead people and a dog were registered in Hawthorne during that same election season. A check by the county registrar indicated that no one had voted under the names of either the deceased or the dog.

There are periodic cases of voter fraud.

A city councilman in the Fresno County town of Parlier pleaded guilty this year to charges of election fraud. And allegations of improper conduct involving absentee ballots prompted a judge to overturn a 1987 Inglewood City Council election.

But Los Angeles County prosecutors say that most of the allegations they investigate involve registration rather than actual voting.

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Just last month, Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich asked the district attorney’s office to look into fraudulent voter registration activity in Glendale, Pasadena and Burbank after more than a quarter of the 143 registrations from one Burbank apartment complex were found to be questionable. The registrations were made by bounty hunters working for a statewide voter registration committee headed by Assemblyman Phillip Isenberg (D-Sacramento).

Two women working for a Republican registration drive in Ventura County were also arrested last month on charges they had falsified registrations. One of the agents is accused of copying down names on tombstones.

Arrests are not common, however, because it is often difficult to identify the person who made the phony registrations.

“I’ve looked at a number of different elections,” said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Gail Erlich, “and we’ve either not been able to substantiate a crime occurred, or if we can substantiate a crime occurred, we can’t identify the person.”

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Most of the complaints Erlich and her colleagues receive come from citizens rather than law enforcement authorities. And they often don’t stand up to closer scrutiny.

Take, for instance, the 350 calls to the state attorney general’s voter fraud hot line this fall. Only 165 supplied enough information to be passed on to investigators, said a spokesman for the office. Many of those were from Los Angeles County, but are proving too flimsy to pursue, said Allen Field, head deputy in charge of special investigations for the district attorney’s office.

One tip the office thought had potential involved 600 fraudulent registrations. As it turned out, a registration drive was simply under way at a 600-unit apartment house.

Concern about phony registrations was heightened this year when it was discovered that Mario Aburto Martinez, the convicted assassin of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, had illegally registered to vote in Los Angeles County not once, but twice.

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California requires no proof of identity or citizenship when people register or go to the polls. The voter registration application, signed under penalty of perjury, asks if a person is a citizen and old enough to vote, but no attempt is made to verify the information. Similarly, voters sign a roster when they vote, but their signatures are not checked.

Such standards are among the easiest in the nation.

Anyone can register by mail and anyone can vote by mail. Moreover, political campaigns are permitted to distribute absentee ballot applications and return them to the registrar’s office.

All this, some argue, is a recipe for abuse. “As long as you have a system where there is no way to determine if the person who registers is who they say they are, the question (of fraud) is always going to be raised,” said Secretary of State-elect Bill Jones, who campaigned on the need for cleansing the rolls of duplicates and requiring some voter identification.

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Legislative efforts have been made to tighten the laws. The state Senate passed a bill last year that would have allowed counties to require voters to provide proof of identity at the polls, but the proposal died in the Assembly.

Defenders of the current system argue that tougher requirements will only further depress the voter turnout. Moreover, they say, why buck a national trend toward loosening voting laws when there is no concrete evidence of extensive corruption? Last year’s adoption of the “motor-voter” law by Congress also complicates the picture. The federal law, scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1, mandates that states allow people to register by mail and offer voter registration at such government agencies as motor vehicle and welfare offices.

Although California Gov. Pete Wilson has ordered state agencies not to implement the motor-voter law unless the federal government pays the costs, the pending law has sparked interest in cleaning up the state’s registration rolls.

Just about everybody agrees that the rolls contain names that shouldn’t be there, partly because California does not actively purge the names of those who have not voted in several consecutive elections. The state stopped doing that in the 1970s.

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Now, county registrars use two main methods to track whether people have moved: mail returned by the post office and notification of the move when a person registers at a new address.

It is by no means a foolproof system, as evidenced by a list of about 75,000 possible duplicate registrations in Los Angeles County. The list, developed by computer consultants working with the Senate Select Committee on Voting Practices and Procedures, turned up in a brief and unsuccessful legal challenge to the vote count in the Huffington race.

It is unclear what percentage of the 75,000 are true duplicates--and at this point, there is no evidence that they were used to cast illegal ballots. But “we’ve identified an area that we have to fix,” says Karen Saranita, a consultant for the committee, which was established by Watson in 1992 and has held several hearings on voting irregularities.

Miller, who recently created a three-person unit to investigate all types of electioneering complaints, says his office is running a search of the statewide rolls to find duplicates. And while some worry that the new motor-voter law will encourage more registration problems, Miller and Saranita both suggest it may cut down on them.

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Since most people will register to vote with the Department of Motor Vehicles, they say the use of bounty hunters will be greatly reduced, taking registrations off the streets.

“That will be a much safer place (at which to register),” Miller said.


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