Dozens of newly minted Republican voters say they were duped into joining the party by a GOP contractor with a trail of fraud complaints stretching across the country.
Voters contacted by The Times said they were tricked into switching parties while signing what they believed were petitions for tougher penalties against child molesters. Some said they were told that they had to become Republicans to sign the petition, contrary to California initiative law. Others had no idea their registration was being changed.
“I am not a Republican,” insisted Karen Ashcraft, 47, a pet-clinic manager and former Democrat from Ventura who said she was duped by a signature gatherer into joining the GOP. “I certainly . . . won’t sign anything in front of a grocery store ever again.”
It is a bait-and-switch scheme familiar to election experts. The firm hired by the California Republican Party -- a small company called Young Political Majors, or YPM, which operates in several states -- has been accused of using the tactic across the country.
Election officials and lawmakers have launched investigations into the activities of YPM workers in Florida and Massachusetts. In Arizona, the firm was recently a defendant in a civil rights lawsuit. Prosecutors in Los Angeles and Ventura counties say they are investigating complaints about the company.
The firm, which a Republican Party spokesman said is paid $7 to $12 for each registration it secures, has denied any wrongdoing and says it has never been charged with a crime.
The 70,000 voters YPM has registered for the Republican Party this year will help combat public perception that it is struggling amid Democratic gains nationally, give a boost to fundraising efforts and bolster member support for party leaders, political strategists from both parties say.
Those who were formerly Democrats may stop receiving phone calls and literature from that party, perhaps affecting its get-out-the-vote efforts. They also will be given only a Republican ballot in the next primary election if they do not switch their registration back before then.
Some also report having their registration status changed to absentee without their permission; if they show up at the polls without a ballot they may be unable to vote.
The Times randomly interviewed 46 of the hundreds of voters whose election records show they were recently re-registered as Republicans by YPM, and 37 of them -- more than 80% -- said that they were misled into making the change or that it was done without their knowledge.
Lydia Laws, a Palm Springs retiree, said she was angry to find recently that her registration had been switched from Democrat to Republican. Laws said the YPM staffer who instructed her to identify herself on a petition as a Republican assured her that it was a formality, and that her registration would not be changed. Later, a card showed up in the mail saying she had joined the GOP.
“I said, ‘No, no, no. That’s not right,’ ” Laws said.
It all sounds familiar to Beverly Hill, a Democrat and the former election supervisor in Florida’s Alachua County. About 200 voters -- mostly college students -- were unwittingly registered as Republicans there in 2004 by YPM staffers using the same tactic, Hill said.
“It is just incredible that this can keep happening election after election,” she said.
YPM and Republican Party officials said they were surprised by the complaints. The officials said the signature gatherers wear shirts bearing the Republican symbol, an elephant -- a contention disputed by some of the voters interviewed.
Every person registered signs an affidavit confirming they voluntarily joined the GOP, party leaders said.
“It does the state party no good to register people in a party they don’t want to be in,” said Hector Barajas, communications director for the California Republican Party.
The document that voters thought was an initiative petition has no legal implications at all. YPM founder Mark Jacoby said the petition was clearly labeled as a “plebiscite,” which does nothing more than show public support.
He also said that plainclothes investigators for Secretary of State Debra Bowen, a Democrat, have conducted multiple spot checks and told his firm it is doing nothing improper.
“Every time, they gave us a thumbs-up,” Jacoby said. “People are not being tricked.”
But Nicole Winger, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, said the agency “does not give an OK or seal of approval to voter registration groups.”
Two years ago, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas charged 12 workers for a petitioning firm hired by the local Republican Party with fraudulently registering voters as Republican.
Democratic registration drives have also caught the attention of law enforcement officials. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, a national nonprofit that recruits mostly Democratic voters, is being investigated by the FBI for filing fake registrations in multiple states during the current presidential campaign. In April, eight ACORN officials in St. Louis pleaded guilty to federal election fraud for submitting false registration cards in 2006.
In California, signature-gatherers are prohibited by law from misleading voters about what they are signing.
“You can’t lie to someone to procure their signature,” said Richard L. Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in election law.
Civil rights activists recently filed a lawsuit in Arizona accusing YPM of deceiving residents to get signatures for a ballot measure that would have prohibited affirmative action by that state. The lawsuit was dropped after supporters of the measure pulled it from the ballot.
In Massachusetts, former YPM worker Angela McElroy testified at a legislative hearing in 2004 that she had tricked voters into signing a ballot measure to ban gay marriage. She said she told voters they were signing in favor of a measure to allow alcoholic drinks to be sold in supermarkets.
YPM’s Jacoby said McElroy was on loan to another signature-gathering company at the time the alleged deception took place.
Jose Aguilera, a 48-year-old math teacher from Ventura whose registration was recently changed from Democrat to Republican, said he signed the child-molester petition outside an Albertsons supermarket. He said he was asked to sign a second document but not told that it would change his registration.
“Somehow the guy pulled out something else and I signed it,” he said.
Ashcraft, the pet-clinic manager, said she knew that she could still vote in November for whichever presidential candidate she supports -- in her case, Democrat Barack Obama.
“I just don’t like being lied to,” she said.
Janett Lemaire, 54, said she told a signature-gatherer in the small Riverside County town of Desert Edge, “I’ve been a Democrat all my life and I want to stay that way.”
But the man “said this has nothing to do with changing how you are registered,” Lemaire said. “Then I get a notice in the mail saying I am a Republican. . . . I was very angry.”