UPDATE, Sept. 26, 2012: The Golden State Voter Participation Project gave additional perspective.
Republican voter registration in California is in a long downward spiral. Still, in 31 of the state’s 58 counties, the GOP still holds sway.
Then there’s Riverside County, where Democratic activists claim that a Republican voter outreach project has employed an unusual fraud scheme to build a 51,000-voter registration advantage.
In a complaint filed last week with the county registrar of voters, the Democrats presented affidavits from 133 Democratic voters who said they had been re-registered as Republicans without their consent after they encountered petition circulators outside welfare offices and stores.
One voter complained that his registration was changed to Republican after he signed what he thought was a petition to legalize marijuana. Another said he was told he was signing a petition to lower the price of gasoline, according to the affidavits.
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Others said they were offered free cigarettes or a “job at the polls” if they signed some paperwork.
Also among the Democrats who said they were involuntarily re-registered as Republicans: two aides to retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Richard Roth, a Democrat locked in a tight race with Republican Assemblyman Jeff Miller for a state Senate seat.
Many of the complainants were Latino or African American.
Steve Maviglio, a spokesman for the Democratic Party’s voter registration efforts, said Republican signature collectors might have improperly re-registered thousands of Riverside County Democrats. Maviglio blamed a GOP registration committee, the Golden State Voter Participation Project.
Spokeswoman Ashley Giovannettone said the voter participation project emphasizes legal and ethical conduct in registering voters and has “zero tolerance” for registration fraud.
“Our canvassers are trained about the laws, the rules and how to conduct themselves, ” she said.
"Registering Democrats as Republican doesn't help our cause," she continued.
The GOP has reported a nearly 35,000-voter surge in registrations this year, according to county records. Records show the voter participation project has paid more than $200,000 to the firms that have been conducting GOP voter registration drives in Riverside County. Charles Munger, a Stanford University physicist and emerging GOP megadonor, gave the project $241,000.
Maviglio contended that by padding their registration numbers, Republicans could get a fundraising boost because prospective donors would view local races as more winnable.
Re-registering Democrats as Republicans also interferes with Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts, he said, because the party won’t contact a voter who is listed as a Republican.
Some of the Democratic voters who filed complaints suggested another motive, noting that petition circulators said they were being paid $7 per signature.
“Mavgilio’s conspiracy theories are pure fantasies,” said Giovannettone, spokeswoman for the Republican registration effort.
Roth, the Democratic candidate, sought to raise the issue in his Senate campaign. He criticized his opponent, Miller, for voting against an Assembly measure that sought to ban “bounty hunter” registration drives – that is, ones in which collectors are paid a fee for each registration obtained. The practice has been linked repeatedly to fraud, proponents of the measure said. It failed.
“I urge Assemblyman Miller to join me in calling on those special interest groups involved to immediately stop this inappropriate conduct,” Roth said in a statement.
Miller’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment. He told The Press-Enterprise, which first reported on the controversy, that the registrar of voters and district attorney should investigate fraud reports. The surge in Republican registrations in the county reflects the party’s popularity, he said.
In January, before the GOP ramped up its registration drive, Riverside Republicans held a 4.7-percentage-point registration advantage over Democrats.
Nine months later, the county elections office reported that the Republicans’ advantage had increased to about 5.7 percentage points. Republican registrants had increased from about 337,000 to about 372,000. Democrats had increased from nearly 299,000 to almost 321,000.
The controversy is playing out as a new report from the California secretary of state shows a continued decline in Republican registrations statewide.
As the November election approaches, about 30 percent of California’s 17.2 million voters are registered Republicans. That’s a drop of more than 2 percentage points since 2008. Republicans trail the Democrats by 13 points and are almost 9 points ahead of those who choose “no party preference,” according to the report.
Republicans outnumber Democrats in 31 counties, most of them in the Central Valley, the Sierra foothills and other rural areas. Democrats predominate in the coastal cities.
Alameda County is California’s biggest Democratic stronghold, with 56 percent of registered voters. By contrast, Modoc County in the state’s northeastern corner reported 50.4 percent Republican registration. It’s the only county where Republicans are a majority.
San Diego, long a Republican bastion, now is the most evenly divided county in the state, as the GOP edge over Democrats has dwindled to 22 voters. According to the secretary of state, 511,964 voters are registered as Democrats, while 511,986 are Republicans.