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Scouring the State for Evidence of Voter Fraud : Election: Participants in loose-knit but intensive effort--some volunteers, others high-priced attorneys--pound pavement, pore over voting records. Newly formed entities include a fund with Huffington ties and an Ezell task force.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With McDonald’s gift certificates in his pocket and a list of names on his clipboard, Liam Weston makes the rounds of a Venice apartment complex.

He is a Republican foot soldier scouring the corners of the 36th Congressional District for evidence of illegal votes, one of dozens of volunteers knocking on doors and asking questions: How long have you lived at this address? Are you registered? Did you vote in the last election?

The fast-food coupons are for those willing to respond. Most do, usually confirming the registration information Weston has with him. But in an hour’s time on a recent Saturday morning, he and his walking partner, Michael Davis, find two apartments in which the information doesn’t match. The people registered to vote at those addresses don’t live there.

The names will go into a file--part of a loosely knit but intensive effort to gather data that could be used to challenge the November election of some Democrats and, more broadly, to advance attempts to tighten registration and voting laws.

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From the streets of Venice to county registrar’s offices, lowly volunteers and high-powered attorneys are toiling over voting records and analyzing precinct tallies.

Small groups, such as Weston’s Committee for Election Integrity, are working with the Voter Fraud Task Force formed by Harold Ezell, one of the architects of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigrant initiative.

The campaign of Republican Rep. Mike Huffington, who has refused to concede his 163,000-vote loss to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has hired Patton, Boggs & Blow, a prominent Washington law firm, to scrutinize the election results for irregularities. The Federal Recount Fund, a secretive fund with Huffington ties, has been formed to help finance the fraud hunt.

Election officials say they have no evidence of ballot fraud, and Democrats dismiss allegations of a tainted election as the grumbling of graceless losers.

But some Republicans are not about to let go of the issue. With it, they see the potential of not only contesting some Democratic victories--such as Feinstein’s, and Jane Harman’s in the 36th Congressional District along the county’s southern coastline--but also of gaining momentum to revise state and federal voting laws that they believe favor Democratic registrations.

“We have an opportunity to do something. . . . This is the day,” said Ezell, pointing to a more receptive environment created by the rise of Republicans in the state Legislature and Congress.

Never shy of the limelight, Ezell leaped from the victorious Proposition 187 campaign to the voter fraud crusade. A week after the election, he started up the task force, which he describes as “a nonpartisan citizens’ action organization,” but most of whose dozen members are Republican, including two conservative GOP legislators: state Sen. Richard L. Mountjoy of Arcadia and Assemblyman Bill Hoge of Pasadena. The group also includes Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and veterans of the Proposition 187 drive.

“The thing that made me start wondering about this,” Ezell says, “was when I was looking at the opposition to 187. I was watching the vociferous anger against 187 and the hot pursuit . . . to register (people) to vote against 187.”

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It made him wonder, he says, how many who were registered by opponents of the initiative were “not qualified to vote, much less qualified to register.”

The task force, which operates out of Ezell’s Newport Beach consulting office, recently opened a toll-free telephone hot line to take tips on suspicious voting activity.

The group is running radio advertisements, including one on Spanish-language stations, publicizing the line, and buying small ads in newspapers throughout the state to solicit tips to the hot line. So far hundreds of calls have come in, ranging from insults to hearsay to reports deemed worthy of follow-up.

Last week, task force workers spent days in front of computers in the Los Angeles County registrar’s office, comparing registration and voting records from precincts in the 36th Congressional District, where Republican Susan Brooks has refused to concede defeat in her 812-vote loss to Harman, the Democratic incumbent.

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The group is also using Patton, Boggs attorneys, according to Ezell, who says he is pouring some of his own money into the effort, which he predicts will cost $150,000 to $175,000.

But he is otherwise vague about the source of the task force’s financing. There are plans to file for nonprofit status, but so far, Ezell says, the task force is “just a bunch of people” and does not have to disclose its donors.

Pressed, Ezell says that some of Huffington’s friends are contributing money and that he “has gotten some bills paid” by the Federal Recount Fund. Indeed, Dimitri Carapanos, listed as a task force member when the group was formed, was later named as the treasurer of the Federal Recount Fund on a document request made to the San Francisco registrar’s office. Ezell said Carapanos dropped off the task force a couple of weeks ago.

As for the fund, John Nelson, a spokesman for Huffington, said: “The people behind the fund would like to remain anonymous. They have the right to remain anonymous. . . . Michael Huffington is not a donor. He might be in the future.”

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Still, Nelson said, Huffington is involved with the fund and gets daily updates on its activities. Moreover, in contacting county registrars, the fund has given as its address the same Costa Mesa office suite that houses Huffington’s office. “They might be sharing office space to save money,” Nelson said.

The fund is not stinting in other ways, however. A spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County registrar’s office said the recount fund has requested copies of every page of the polling rosters signed by voters in each of the county’s 6,000 or so precincts in the Nov. 8 election. The estimated bill is $25,000. Another fund request, for the precinct auditing sheets, will cost about $3,000.

While the fund is spending money and Ezell is beating the publicity drum, it appears that much of the hard-core election analysis is being conducted by Patton, Boggs. The firm has sent several attorneys to California, including partner Bob Hunter, an election law specialist who usually works out of the firm’s North Carolina offices.

According to those familiar with the effort, the Patton, Boggs team is scrutinizing a wide variety of records, including precinct tally sheets, registration records and postal change-of-address lists--which registrars rely on to see whether voters have moved. Pinkerton Security and Investigation Services was even briefly employed to get some information from registrar’s offices.

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The attorney team, which has also hired some political scientists for data analysis, is not just looking for deliberate fraud. It is searching as well for discrepancies and sloppiness that would cast doubt on election figures. Even if individual precinct tallies are off by only a handful of votes, if that trend can be proved statewide, it could, in theory, add up to the kind of numbers Huffington needs to question Feinstein’s winning margin.

All this is being done against a tight deadline, because elections have to be challenged within a month of certification. In the case of Huffington and Brooks, complaints could also be filed with the Senate and House, both of which will be under Republican control when the new session of Congress convenes in January.

Ezell also says he wants to amass evidence to try to block implementation of the motor-voter law, which goes into effect next month, or even get Congress to repeal it. Widely opposed by Republicans, the national legislation allows people to register by mail (long the practice in California) and at welfare and motor vehicle offices.

Despite suggestions by both Ezell and Huffington that there may have been widespread voting by non-citizens in last month’s elections, the search for illegal balloting seems to be taking other directions.

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A task force press release earlier this month centered on various alleged discrepancies in balloting figures in the 36th District, which is being closely examined because of the narrow margin in that race.

Those discrepancies included differences between polling station tallies and the county registrar’s numbers, as well as differences between the number of cast ballots and the number of signatures on the polling roster signed by voters.

Weston, for his part, says his group’s door-to-door canvassing has uncovered hundreds of voters registered at an address they do not appear to live at, including some vacant lots.

“To what degree is it fraud and to what degree is it someone who moved, I’m not sure,” says Weston, an El Segundo city councilman who has worked for several GOP politicians. “But they’re all illegal votes.”

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(According to election laws, people can vote in their old precinct if they have moved within 28 days before an election, but otherwise they are required to re-register at their new address.)

Using a list provided by Weston’s group, The Times contacted seven voters who were registered at one address but, according to postal forwarding information, no longer lived there. In several cases, the voters said they had moved a short distance away and either did not know they had to re-register or did not think it was that important.

“Oh, I didn’t think it was that big a deal. I only moved five blocks away,” said one man who returned to his old polling precinct for last month’s election.

In another case, a woman said she had never moved, but simply used a post office box for her mail.

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Fredric Woocher, an election law specialist and Harman’s attorney, dismissed the significance of the alleged irregularities so far cited.

“I have no doubt that occurs in every election. It is far from voter fraud,” Woocher said. “The notion of a coherent pattern of people (who have moved) running back into Jane Harman’s district and voting for Jane Harman and not Susan Brooks is absurd. How would you organize that?”


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