New Scandal Rocks Former Condit Country

"Condit Country" may have lost its favorite son Rep. Gary Condit to scandal, but that hasn't stopped local Democrats from flinging charges of voter fraud at their Republican counterparts.

Party leaders and some election officials have accused Republicans in California's 18th Congressional District of hiring voter registration workers to trick Democrats into switching parties, resulting in the smallest gap in party identification in years for this politically moderate mid-state region.

"They hired a bunch of thugs who illegally registered Republicans," charged Bob Mulholland, spokesperson for the state Democratic Party. "It’s already been documented and people have already been quoted saying they have been taken to the cleaners."

Republicans, however, say the charges of fraud are a ruse for Democrats who have watched their support fizzle as a result of the antics of Rep. Gary Condit, the congressman linked to murdered federal intern Chandra Levy.

Condit lost the March primary to his protege, state Rep. Dennis Cardoza. Republicans say Cardoza can't beat his Republican opponent, state Sen. Dick Monteith, in November without accusations of Republican wrongdoing.

"I think that when a campaign is losing ground, they try and change the debate. This is just a desperate attempt to do that," said Karen Henretty, spokeswoman for the state Republican Party.

Nevertheless, the secretary of state’s office is investigating complaints from voters who said they had been registered Republican after affixing their signatures to what they believed was a petition on an unrelated issue. All of the complainants said they signed the document in front of a supermarket or a store, a popular place for petition and voting drives.

The secretary of state has not yet determined if paid voter registration workers who were fired by the GOP in January had anything to do with the spate of voters who found themselves with the wrong party affiliation just before and on the March 5 primary day.

Henretty acknowledged that some registration drive workers, who are used spread across the state for voter drives and petition gathering, employed fraudulent means to sign up new party members, knowing that they were making up to eight dollars for every registrant they pulled in.

"There were some instances where vendors were registering on our behalf and were being less than genuine and there were complaints," she said. "The vendors were fired and we instituted a number of ethical reforms" including taking over the drives themselves.

But that's not enough of a response for Mulholland, who said the state should file charges against the GOP.

"The people who were doing this drive are now running from the police, running from the authorities and are now unavailable," he said.

Surprisingly, cases of fraud are not unusual in California, sources said.

"You don’t know how many times I’ve said, ‘don’t let that guy work for you' and instead they’ve hired him back on," said Deborah Hench, registrar of voters for San Joaquin County. "Paying people to register voters, or paying them to circulate a petition is just promoting the fraud."

Hench said that while Republicans have narrowed the voter registration gap to Democrats in her county 104,000 to 106,000 respectively, she's unwilling to blame fraud for the uptick in Republican registration. For one, a closed primary, the first of its kind in the area, forced people to pick a party before voting.

Secondly, she said, "The Republicans did a huge drive in this county. The Republicans work at it all year round."

Merced County has also seen the gap narrow to 40,200 Democrats and 38,500 Republicans, but registrar James Ball said that county hasn’t witnessed more than "a concerted effort, according to the people in the community, to have more Republicans registered."

While Democrats still outnumber Republicans by a six-point margin, 47-41 percent, in former Condit Country, Republican voter rolls have spiked six points from one year ago. Democrats argue that a more realistic assessment is a 10-point spread, 49-39 percent, with their party in the clear majority.

Republicans argue the numbers shouldn't shock anyone. The district has been moving Republican in the last decade. In fact, President Bush defeated then-Vice President Al Gore in the 2000 election 53-44 percent.