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House Dismisses Dornan Challenge of Sanchez’s Win

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The House voted overwhelmingly Thursday to dismiss the election challenge filed against Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), then defeated a Republican attempt to tighten voter registration procedures to prevent voting by noncitizens.

Rejection of the election challenge, approved 378-33, was expected after the House Oversight Committee wrapped up a lengthy investigation last week by finding insufficient evidence to void Sanchez’s 1996 victory over Republican incumbent Robert K. Dornan. It was Dornan who filed the challenge, blaming his upset defeat primarily on illegal votes cast by noncitizens.

The voter fraud legislation that the House also considered Thursday would have launched a pilot program in California and four other states to allow officials, at their discretion, to verify citizenship before people registered.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Long Beach), received majority support--210 to 200--but a two-thirds majority was required for passage because it was voted on under special parliamentary rules.

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The measure will probably be brought up again as part of a package of voter reform bills, GOP leaders said, at which time the two-thirds rule will not apply.

Democrats decried the bill as an assault on 1960s-era efforts to ensure access to the ballot box regardless of race, while Republicans argued that it was intended to safeguard the very foundation of the democracy.

“Members who vote against this bill are saying . . . they do not want to know if noncitizens are voting,” Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said.

“You can be a black American citizen, you can be a yellow American citizen, you can be a red American citizen, a white American citizen, a brown American citizen,” he continued. “You can be a tall American citizen, a short American citizen--but you should be an American citizen.”

The emotion-filled debate came moments after the vote to dismiss the challenge to Sanchez’s 984-vote victory.

The House Oversight Committee said it found evidence of 748 improper ballots, 624 by immigrants who were not citizens when they registered to vote.

Officials said the committee had spent $300,000 and the Immigration and Naturalization Service had spent $500,000 to $1 million on the 14-month investigation; the price tag could double if the committee decides to reimburse Sanchez and Dornan for their legal fees.

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In a report released Thursday, Republican members of the committee provided new details about the investigation. The details, however, cast doubt even on the 624 votes that were identified as illegally cast because of citizenship questions.

The committee had arrived at this figure by matching Orange County voter rolls with data provided by the INS. But in at least 226 of the cases, differences in addresses or signatures raised questions about whether the matches were precise.

“We categorically deny that there is substantial proof that there is anywhere near 600, 500, 400, 300, 200 improper votes,” said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), a member of the task force that conducted the probe. “Our analysis shows that their number is wildly inflated.”

Republicans on the oversight panel said that while investigators were unable to prove there were more illegal votes than Sanchez’s margin of victory, the findings were nonetheless troubling.

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“We need to change the laws in order to understand who is on the rolls legally and who is not,” said committee Chairman Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield).

“In the end of the day,” added Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), “Bob Dornan was right--there were illegal voters.”

Dornan, who was banned from the House in an unprecedented vote last fall because of an altercation with Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), was allowed to return to the chamber for the first time Thursday as members debated the fate of his challenge. He flitted about, huddling with friends and shaking the hands of his Democratic opponents, then planted himself in the front row, watching.

After the vote, Dornan said his fellow Republicans “could not take the heat” of calling for a new election. “They’re all sheepish about it, but I love them all because they worked hard.”

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Sanchez, meanwhile, was to fly home for a victory party Thursday night at the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel in Costa Mesa. This weekend, she said, she will be walking precincts to collect signatures for her qualifying petitions for the 1998 ballot.

While the vast majority of Republicans joined with Democrats in voting to dismiss the case, a few said the investigation should continue.

Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.) said Thursday, “The question today is did fraud occur, and the answer is yes. This Congress has spent millions and millions of dollars to support fair elections in Haiti, in Bosnia, in countless developing democracies around the world, and we cannot assure the cleanliness of elections here at home.’

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) joined in voting against dismissal, saying, “Something smelled about that election from Day One. We have not fully determined who won or did not win in that election.”

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Among the other representatives who are part of the Orange County delegation with Sanchez, Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) also voted against dismissing the election challenge.

Reps. Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), Jay C. Kim (R-Diamond Bar) and Ron Packard (R-Oceanside) supported the motion.

Most Republicans chose to focus on the voter-fraud legislation as a mechanism to prevent similar instances of noncitizen voting in the future. The bill would let local voting officials tap into records at the INS and the Social Security Administration to verify citizenship of registrants.

Horn, the bill’s sponsor, recalled how his Irish immigrant grandfather donned top hat and tails for his first trip to the polls. “The vote is precious,” Horn said. “American citizens expect the voting rolls to be made up of American citizens.”

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Democrats made arguments no less grand. Georgia’s John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, listed the names of the martyrs of the movement killed in the 1960s while fighting for blacks’ right to vote.

“We have come too far. We cannot go back. We must not go back,” Lewis exhorted.


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