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California

Riverside County GOP registration surge raises questions of fraud

SACRAMENTO — Aggressive recruitment efforts in one of California’s most hotly contested voting districts has created a surge of newly minted Republicans like Marleny Reyes. Except she had no intention of joining the GOP.

The Moreno Valley College student is among scores of voters in Riverside County who say they were duped.

Formal complaints filed with the state by at least 133 residents of a state Senate district there say they were added to GOP rolls without their knowledge, calling into question the party’s boast that Republican membership has rocketed 23% in the battleground area.

More than 27,700 residents of the legislative district have become Republicans since January, according to the California secretary of state’s office — erasing a registration edge long held by Democrats.

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The complaints have also shined a light on the political committee behind the registration drive, Golden State Voter Participation Project, and its biggest donor, wealthy GOP activist Charles Munger Jr. Other donors include the California Apartment Assn., Farmers Group Inc. and Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing of America.

The problem has also raised anew the question of whether the state should ban firms that pay workers for each voter they register or signature they secure on a petition rather than paying them an hourly rate. Workers have an incentive to cut corners under such arrangements, according to Assemblyman Richard Pan (D-Natomas), who has proposed barring the practice in a bill that is on the governor’s desk.

Democrats say bogus registrations are more than just an issue of workers trying to make an extra buck — that they’re a trick to prevent the Democratic party from getting supporters to the polls as well as to draw more money to the area’s Republican races. A statewide Democratic group gathered the complaints and filed them with the secretary of state’s investigators.

A local Democratic group, the Riverside County Progressive Political Action Committee, alleged in a letter to county officials that the GOP registration drive there was “an overt and pervasive voter registration fraud effort.”

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Many of those who were registered said they signed documents they thought were petitions for ballot measures to legalize marijuana or create jobs in California. Reyes said she was told that for her signature to be counted she would also have to fill out a registration form.

She did so, without checking a box for a political party because she was already registered as a Democrat. She was surprised to receive a notice in the mail later saying she had been registered as a Republican.

“It’s really disturbing,” said the 20-year-old criminal justice major, who has since re-registered as a Democrat.

The controversy has spilled into the Senate race between Assemblyman Jeff Miller (R-Corona) and Democratic candidate Richard Roth, an attorney. The district they’re battling for is one of four that both major parties believe could help Democrats win a supermajority in the upper house.

Democrats have cited the voter complaints in criticizing Miller, who has touted the registration surge as “a reflection of the hard work my campaign has put into communicating with voters.”

Democrats were 39.7% of the 31st Senate District’s registered voters in January, and Republicans 36.6%. State figures show that in September, Republicans had overtaken Democrats by 543 voters. Each party now has roughly 39% of the registration.

The card used to register Reyes as a Republican was issued by the Riverside County registrar to Elisa Muchmore of Iolite Consulting, a Riverside firm, according to county documents. Muchmore, Iolite’s managing partner, said she gave the cards she received from the county to the subcontractors who register people. She said she was not aware of anyone being registered without their consent.

“We call 90% of them,” Muchmore said of the registrants, to verify that the sign-ups are legitimate. Some people do not put their phone numbers on the documents they sign or return messages, but none of those she reached had any complaints, she said.

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The workers who are paid to register people undergo training on the proper procedures, she said. “We try to do absolutely everything to ensure the process is legal and that we don’t disenfranchise any voters,” she said.

Iolite Consulting was hired for $101,000 by West Coast Campaign Management, which oversaw the GOP registration drive in the county. West Coast Campaign Management was paid $400,000 for the job by the Golden State Voter Project. Munger contributed $241,000 to that group.

Munger, whose sister Molly Munger sponsored Proposition 38 on the Nov. 6 ballot in an effort to raises taxes for schools, did not return calls for comment. But a spokeswoman for the Golden State Voter Project said the group was not aware of any allegations of impropriety until they were reported in the media. The group does not tolerate misconduct, said spokeswoman Ashley Giovannettone.

She said that if wrongdoing is found, “we will work with the appropriate officials to prosecute those responsible to the full extent of the law. We have very strict checks in place to make sure the voter’s intent is carried out.”

West Coast Campaign Management hired several firms — not just Iolite — that in turn paid dozens of individuals to register people. Records obtained by The Times show that registration forms cited in several complaints were issued by elections officials to workers and firms who were part of the Golden State group’s registration drive.

Colleen Jacobs was surprised to find herself registered as a Republican shortly after she signed some petitions outside a Sam’s Club in Riverside.

“I signed the petitions, and then the next thing I know, I got something in the mail saying I’m a Republican,” said Jacobs, a Moreno Valley homemaker who had been a Democrat since 1997. “I thought it was a mistake. It’s crazy.” She has since re-registered as a Democrat.

Last year, the California secretary of state’s office investigated 100 cases of alleged voter fraud, including some involving registrations. Thirteen were sent to prosecutors, and one resulted in a conviction, said Shannan Velayas, spokeswoman for the state agency.

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Velayas declined to comment on the Riverside County complaints.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com


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