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In Orange County, mostly white residents heed Donald Trump’s call to be on the lookout for voter fraud

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This year’s contentious election has led some people in California to sign up to monitor polling stations. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Linda Reedy has long been convinced that voter fraud was afoot, with ballots cast even by people who were not American citizens.

But it wasn’t until after Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump began to sound the drumbeat of rigged elections and asked supporters — particularly in hotly contested battleground states — to monitor polling stations that the 53-year-old Laguna Niguel resident finally heeded the call of the election day poll observer.

Reedy not only trained to become an observer, she opened her home this week for others to learn from a coordinator for the private Election Integrity Project how to keep an eye out for irregularities on Tuesday.

“I just want to make sure that people who are eligible to vote are able to vote,” Reedy said. “And that they aren’t being cheated or manipulated by any party.”

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She waved off studies that stated that voting fraud is rare. Those researchers, she said, just aren’t “looking in the right places.”

A victory by Hillary Clinton in deeply blue California is expected — with some polls showing the Democratic candidate with a large lead. But that hasn’t stopped some people — mostly conservative and overwhelmingly white — from signing up to try to scour for voter fraud.

Overall, researchers have found that instances of voter fraud are minuscule, with only a handful of cases that would be highly unlikely to swing a national election. In 2014, Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt, who studies elections, found 31 credible claims of someone pretending to be someone else at the polls from more than 1 billion ballots cast since 2000.

Orange County has a controversial history when it comes to poll observing. In 1988, the Orange County registrar of voters was told that mostly Latino residents arriving at 20 Santa Ana polling locations were greeted on the day of the presidential election by uniformed guards holding signs with a message in Spanish and English that read: “Non-Citizens Can’t Vote.”

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The guards had been hired by the campaign of a Republican state assembly candidate, and the incident produced allegations of voter intimidation and racism — as well as a lawsuit that eventually was settled.

Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert who teaches at UC Irvine, said allegations of voter fraud have long been used as part of a political strategy.

“There have been Republican operatives who have used unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud as means of trying to rile up the Republican base,” Hasen said, though he added that “many of the people who will go and volunteer in these so-called integrity efforts really do believe that there is a major problem, and there is no amount of evidence to convince them otherwise.”

Trump’s calls for supporters, who are mostly white, to watch for fraud by urban voters, including in places like Philadelphia — with a population that is about 50% black — has led many critics to accuse him of bigotry. The GOP nominee also has stated that immigrants in the country illegally are being allowed to pour into the U.S. to cast votes in the election.

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Trump’s statements have put the Republican National Committee in an uncomfortable situation. For three decades, the party has been under a federal court order that bars efforts to police the polls on election day, arguing that it might intimidate minority voters.

On Friday, the RNC told a federal judge that the party can’t be held accountable for what Trump says. The group said it is careful to steer clear of poll-monitoring operations.

The highly polarized nature of this election and Trump’s talk about voter fraud has stoked distrust even in parts of deeply blue California, which is far from a battleground state. Moreover, for the first time since the Depression, the traditionally Republican stronghold of Orange County, which has undergone major demographic shifts in recent decades, could vote for a Democrat for president.

Katherine Gerdis, a coordinator with the Election Integrity Project — which touts itself as nonpartisan but which also advocates for a number of conservative causes, including strict voter identification laws — said the organization has trained more than 100 people in Orange County and recently led a poll observer training seminar in Los Alamitos.

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Although the group is not associated with Judicial Watch, a well-known right-wing organization that launched a similar effort by the same name in 2012, it does draw volunteers from the Tea Party and anti-illegal immigration organizations.

Many of the 15 mostly white and older women in attendance at a recent meeting said they were motivated to become poll observers out of fear of fraud and malfeasance during the upcoming election. Some believe voting by non-citizens is widespread and agreed with Trump’s allegations of a “rigged” election.

“I believe the future of our nation is at stake” with this election, said Gloria Pruyne, 78, of Fountain Valley, who sported red pants and a blue sweater over a white shirt — with sparkly U.S. flags dangling from her ears. “I’m extremely concerned about America’s future.”

Janice Heaney, a retiree who lives in Cypress, attended the Los Alamitos seminar with two friends who are equally concerned about the election.

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“I just feel like there is a lot of invalid voting,” she said. “I just feel like I would like to keep it honest.”

Moments earlier, Heaney listened to a video of an Election Integrity Project trainer listing the dos and don’ts of poll observing.

Ruth Weiss, statewide director of education and training for the Election Integrity Project, stood next to a lighted fireplace as she laid down the ground rules:

“Be professional, not intimidating,” she said. Do not photograph or record. Do not touch election material.

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“If you observe anything that feels illegal or wrong or suspicious to you, step out and call the EIP hotline immediately,” Weiss said.

Gerdis stressed that two poll workers must be in the same vehicle and not in separate vehicles when they drop off ballots at the end of election day. If that’s not the case, she urged the participants to report it to the EIP hotline.

But in Orange County, poll workers are allowed to drive separately as long as they follow each other.

It’s a discrepancy that worries Nia Hartman, an electrical engineer from Rossmoor who has worked Orange County polling stations for 22 elections. She attended the seminar out of curiosity.

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Though she said she was glad to meet other concerned citizens, she said she was taken aback by the generic information provided at the seminar, which in some cases did not match official Orange County procedures.

She said she worried that this could result in observers documenting correct actions as infractions and unnecessarily inflate peoples’ fears.

“I’m concerned that they are doing some fear-mongering with some of the issues they brought up,” Hartman said. “It’s as if they want to find fraud.”

Hartman also wondered why the participants didn’t attend poll worker and observer classes hosted for free by the county.

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“Anybody can go to the Registrar of Voters and take the two- or three-hour poll worker class, and it’ll answer all their questions,” she said. “They can get the education for free, and it will be accurate.”

Orange County Registrar of Voters Neal Kelley said only about 11 people had signed up for the poll observer class put on by the county. That’s a departure from the 2012 election cycle, when the county trained 60 observers. He said he welcomes anyone to come observe on election day.

“My desire is to have full transparency because I think there is a lot of misinformation out there,” Kelley said.

Kelly Haile, who attended the Laguna Niguel seminar hosted by Reedy, said she started to lose faith in the voting system when she rented a home in West Covina years ago.

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The 53-year-old, who now lives in Huntington Beach, said she received two additional ballots during every election cycle at the West Covina home. One ballot was for a woman who had long since died and the other was for the woman’s daughter, who was in prison.

Even after Haile emailed and called the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters office repeatedly, the issue never was solved, she said, and the ballots kept coming.

While some would chalk it up to pure negligence, Haile believed it was intentional and an opening for potential voter fraud.

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Her experience in West Covina and news reports she said indicate voter fraud, paired with Trump’s unprecedented call to his supporters to watch polling places on election day, led Haile to attend the seminar.

“I don’t put anything past the system,” she said.

In light of such a contentious election cycle, Kelley has taken extra steps to make sure election day goes smoothly.

Though the Registrar and the Orange County district attorney’s office has partnered on election day previously, this year, the agencies plan to ramp up their cooperation. The district attorney’s office will have 10 teams of two investigators in the field, ready to respond immediately if problems arise in polling stations.

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Though Kelley said he doesn’t anticipate any issues, he wants to be extra prepared.

“Last thing I want to do is break up skirmishes on election day,” he said.

cindy.carcamo@latimes.com

Follow Cindy Carcamo on Twitter @thecindycarcamo

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