SACRAMENTO, CA - Sacramento County elections officials have turned over what they say are several suspicious voter registration cards that were collected by a for-profit company hired by local and state Republicans to state election fraud investigators.
How big of a problem are the voter registration cards that were part of the GOP voter drive?
"Enough that we started keeping track," Sacramento County registrar of voters Jill LaVine said.
Once they started keeping track, LaVine said staffers found invalid voter registration cards at much higher rates than previous for-profit registration drives. She said that during the month of April, 44 percent of all invalid voter registration cards in the county came from just one company.
"This particular petition company, we have spoken to," LaVine said. "And we haven't had much success."
The company is Sacramento-based Momentum Political Services, a small operation that hires independent contractors to fan out across the region and register voters. In many cases, those contractors also circulate petitions for ballot initiatives, and often register citizens at the same time they enlist a signature in support of one or more initiatives.
State and federal campaign records show Momentum was paid some $49,000 by the Sacramento County Republican Party to boost GOP registration ranks in key battleground communities.
Those efforts appear to have been successful, especially in eastern parts of the county.
But a number of what election experts refer to as "bad" registration cards - ones that, for one reason or another, are invalid - have also been submitted during the drive. Sacramento County elections officials put the tally of invalid cards submitted by Momentum Political Services at more than 3,100.
In some instances, cards were submitted with street numbers or names that can't be found. In others, the voters themselves don't appear to exist, as formal county registration letters come back undeliverable. Officials said a number of cards were also submitted for individual voters who not only couldn't be located, but who also all had the same last four Social Security digits.
And in some instances, the voter's party affiliation appears to have been changed, by someone, to Republican.
"The circulator signed in blue ink, and it just happens that the party is checked in a blue ink," said LaVine during an examination of one suspicious card. "The voter did the rest [of the card] in black ink."
Several of the Sacramento County cards circulated by Momentum Political Services have now been turned over to the election fraud investigation unit of the California Secretary of State. A spokesperson said she could not comment on whether there's any pending investigation.
The owner of the company, Monica Harris admitted that some of her contractors had been "sloppy," while also suggesting that any accusations against the work she did for the GOP to be "politically motivated."
Democrats are well aware (and have done their own research) of the concerns about the Sacramento County GOP registration drive, given the tight registration numbers in one of the region's most anticipated fall battles - the state's new seventh Congressional district, where incumbent Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Gold River) is being challenged again by Democrat Ami Bera.
Two voters registered during the GOP drive said neither had any idea that they had been registered as Republicans.
"He never asked me about my party affiliation," said Folsom resident Malinda Cruse, who said the man that registered her filled out the entire form on her behalf, offering to mail it in after letting her sign it.
"I was shocked that I was a registered Republican," said Cruse, who said she would have registered as a Democrat if given the chance.
Harris, the owner of the political petition company in question, said she has fired 16 people since the start of the program, referring some of them to state fraud investigators.
Harris said she advertises for workers on Craigslist and at least some have a criminal record. Harris said she asks if any contractor has a conviction for breaking state election laws, but conceded that she does not do any formal background check.
"It's just not the standard in the industry," she said.
It remains unclear just how Momentum Political Services was chosen by Republican officials for the contract. Jennifer Kerns, a spokesperson for the state Republican Party, said Momentum was selected for the contract because it's "a local firm that had worked on similar campaigns in the area."
Kerns declined to say how many Republicans the firm was paid to register. While she say the firm was not paid for any invalid voter registration cards, she could not say how much of the roughly $49,000 in pre-payments Momentum would lose.
State officials said almost 1,100 fraudulent voter registration cases were opened across California since the mid 1990s, though only a fraction were ever prosecuted.
Legislation at the state Capitol in 2011 would have banned these paid registered voter drives, known in political circles as "bounty hunts." A state legislative analysis found at least 11 states have laws on the books that ban "bounty payments," and SB 205 easily passed both houses.
But the bill was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. "I don't believe this bill will help" stop fraud, wrote Brown in his veto. "Efforts to register voters should be encouraged, not criminalized."
Sacramento County elections officials said since questions began being asked, the validity rate of voter registration cards submitted by the company in question has gone up.
LaVine said a voter should know that they always have the right to take the card from a paid worker and mail it on their own, all registration cards have pre-paid postage.
"Then your information is not in somebody else's hands," LaVine said.