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GOP under attack for voter drives
Democrats allege party affiliation being switched
By Will Shuck
The Record of Stockton, CA

Capitol Bureau Chief

Evelyn Miramontes said she had a feeling something wasn't quite right but signed her name anyway.

Carmen Rojas doesn't know when or where it happened.

And John McCauther, son of a former mayor of Atwater and godson of congressional candidate Dennis Cardoza, said he just wasn't paying attention.

All three said they were yanked off the Democratic voter rolls and registered as Republicans against their will.

Speaking at a news conference arranged by Democratic congressional candidate Dennis Cardoza, they all blamed paid signature gatherers who didn't make it clear they were changing their party affiliation when signing forms in public places.

Cardoza and Secretary of State candidate Kevin Shelley, a Democratic assemblyman from San Francisco, said the three Central Valley residents are a tiny example of a potentially massive scam that may explain why the GOP has rapidly closed in on Democratic majorities in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

At issue are the methods of paid signature gatherers, who allegedly went to extreme measures to collect a bounty of as much as $8 per person who registered as a Republican as part of an area GOP-backed registration drive.

The allegations are under investigation by the Secretary of State's Office.

Republican Party spokeswoman Karen Hanretty said Democrats are desperate to explain the sometimes stunning success Republicans have had in recent months signing up voters and tilting the scales toward potential victories in the Valley. The GOP has posted massive registration gains in Assembly, Senate and congressional districts.

"Politicizing these complaints seems suspicious," Hanretty said. "The Republican Party has nothing to gain by fraudulently registering voters.

"Fact is, President Bush's message and the Republican Party's message is resonating with voters in the San Joaquin Valley. I mean, we've got a president right now who has historically high approval numbers, not only nationwide but also in California."

Cardoza, who bested Rep. Gray Condit in the 18th Congressional District Democratic primary, faces Republican state Sen. Dick Monteith, R-Modesto, in November.

Cardoza and Shelley have co-authored a bill they say would crack down on registration mischief, by requiring county officials to call voters and check details whenever a registration card is filled out in pencil. It's too easy, Cardoza said, for an unscrupulous person to erase a checkmark and make a new one.

The assemblyman said he wasn't accusing Republicans of deliberate fraud, but suggests they left themselves open to trouble by paying so high a bounty on registration cards.

"I'm not accusing the people who paid for the program," Cardoza said. "They were duped like the rest of the public."

Republican spokeswoman Hanretty said the party "will not tolerate voter fraud" and would help identify any of their contractors proven to have acted illegally.

She also took a shot at Cardoza over allegations that surfaced in the 1990s that he had contributed to a Democratic voter registration drive in Southern California that fell under a cloud of suspicion.

"It's like Al Capone speaking out against bootlegging," Hanretty said.

For Stockton mom Evelyn Miramontes, 46, there was nothing funny about what she said happened outside the Food4Less on Hammer Lane a few months back.

On the way to the store, she said, a signature gatherer asked her to sign something that "could help get a rebate from Pacific Gas & Electric."

"Then he said, 'since the Republican Party is sponsoring this, you need to sign this other card,' " she said. "I had a feeling. ... I've signed lots of petitions, and they never ask you to sign a second card."

She believes the second card was a registration form, partly obscured by other papers on a clipboard. With her signature, her affiliation was changed from Democrat to Republican.

"I was furious," she said. "I've never been a Republican. I never will be. Until I die, there will be Democratic blood coursing through my veins."

She complained to the Secretary of State's Office, and her name was added to a list of people concerned about the San Joaquin Valley registration drive.

Carmen Rojas, 53, of Los Banos said she doesn't remember signing anything, but when she showed up to vote in the Democratic primary in March, she was handed a Republican ballot and told she wasn't a Democrat as she had been since becoming a citizen in 1995.

She came to the attention of the Cardoza campaign through her son, a friend of a Cardoza staff member.

Cardoza's godson, John McCauther, 19, said he was hoodwinked on a Merced campus, by someone at a table who filled out a registration form, "then just asked me to sign."

It wasn't apparent that he had become a Republican until his sample ballot came, a fact that his mother, not he, first noticed. McCauther didn't think he'd re-registered as a Democrat.

* To reach Capitol Bureau Chief Will Shuck, phone (916) 441-4078 or e-mail sacto@recordnet.com