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State to Seek INS Help in Checking County Voter Rolls

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

California Secretary of State Bill Jones will meet Thursday with federal immigration officials to seek their help in checking the citizenship of 1,499 registered Orange County voters.

The voters were identified by the House Oversight Committee as “possibly” being noncitizens when they registered, according to a letter sent to Jones from the committee chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield).

The committee came up with the names during its investigation of the contested 1996 election in the 46th Congressional District, the letter stated.

Jones wants the Immigration and Naturalization Service to verify the accuracy of the House list before state and county voting officials remove those who had allegedly registered improperly.

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To get that verification, though, the INS must agree to waive the Privacy Act for the purpose of maintaining the voter rolls.

The secretary of state is not seeking criminal prosecution of those who registered improperly but will ask the Orange County registrar of voters to remove unqualified registrants from the voter list before the November election, said Beth Miller, a top aide to Jones.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has been invited to the meeting between Jones and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner. But Becerra said he had not decided yet whether to attend.

Becerra said he does not want the process to “further harass and intimidate Latino voters.” He wants to determine how the House committee compiled the list of names.

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Both Jones and Becerra expressed interest in ensuring that ineligible voters be removed from the rolls to protect them from possible deportation. Under a 1996 immigration law, noncitizens who vote are subject to deportation.

“It is unacceptable to have noncitizens registered to vote, and we clearly are concerned that anyone who remains on file could be in jeopardy with INS,” Miller said. “We want bipartisan support for a solution.”

But Lee Godown, spokesman for Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), decried the effort, saying it “approaches a vendetta” by Thomas.

“This is clearly politically motivated . . . and is an attempt to deny voters their rights,” Godown said. “Mr. Thomas just won’t let it go.”

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Thomas chaired the committee that investigated claims by defeated congressman Robert K. Dornan that voting by noncitizens and other irregularities caused his 984-vote loss to Sanchez two years ago. The House rejected the challenge, saying it found a significant but insufficient number of improper votes to overturn the election.

Dornan and Sanchez are again facing off in this November’s election for the House seat.

Becerra also questioned Thomas’ authority in sending the list of names to Jones, adding that it is important to clean the rolls of ineligible voters.

“We don’t want Bob Dornan to claim again that he had an election stolen from him,” Becerra said. “But there are privacy concerns” for citizens who are registered to vote and are being investigated.

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“I think Jones is trying to do this in the right way,” he said.

So far this year, the Orange County registrar has removed 561 people who had registered when they were noncitizens. They came from among 743 registered by a Latino civil rights group that was investigated by the district attorney’s office for registering noncitizens. No one was prosecuted. The INS verified the citizenship status of those people several times before the registrar contacted them about their voting status.

The 1,499 names on the House list matched INS records of the names and birth dates of people who became citizens after they had registered or who were not citizens in early 1998, according to the Thomas letter.

Miller said Jones wants to act now “to remove ineligible voters so there is no chilling effect on any community in California.”

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Zeke Hernandez, district director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he might support the effort if its purpose is solely to “make the rolls squeaky-clean.”

Hernandez wanted assurances that there would be no penalties against anyone on the list. “I think that is paramount,” he said.


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