Approximately 650 Cal Poly students could be in for a surprise next month when they go to vote, because of a deceptive registration drive on campus this past spring which has now ‘gone national’ and resulted in an investigation by the Secretary of State’s Election Fraud Investigation Unit.
‘Very unusual’ processing
In May, an organization known as the Conservative Citizens Group came to Cal Poly and claimed it was circulating a petition to increase funding for education, Julie Rodewald, San Luis Obispo’s county clerk-recorder, said. Most students were under the impression they were signing the petition, when in reality, the group was asking for the students’ personal information and fraudulently registering them as members of the Republican Party and permanent vote-by-mail voters.
“Once we started processing them, it became quite obvious that all of the party registrations were marked Republicans, which is very unusual,” Rodewald said.
Rodewald said it’s most likely the students didn’t know they were signing a voter registration card because the collectors verbally asked the questions and filled out the cards themselves. The students were just asked to sign their name.
“That’s what we’re hearing from people,” she said. “They never had an opportunity to choose a party.”
The stack of 900 voter registration cards were turned in three days after the deadline to be eligible to vote in the June primary, Rodewald said. Of the 900 registrations, approximately 650 belong to Cal Poly students. The remaining registrations are those of some faculty and staff members and may also be from Cuesta College students.
The Republican-only registrations weren’t the only oddity that alerted the clerk-recorder’s office of the possible fraud. Rodewald said all 900 of the registrations were marked permanent vote-by-mail, which means the voters would receive their ballot at the address they designated, instead of going to a poll.
The clerk-recorder’s office sent notifications to the 900 voters in late June, but many students had already returned home for the summer. If a notification was returned to the clerk-recorder’s office, the voter was listed as invalid and could only vote if they updated their address. But if the student was previously registered to vote in their home county, and is now unknowingly registered in San Luis Obispo, the registration in their home county was likely cancelled.
Who is the Conservative Citizens Group?
The individuals collecting these registrations claimed they were part of an organization called the Conservative Citizens Group. Rodewald said they kept the voter registration cards for longer than three days after the cards had been filled out. They either never gave the voters a chance to choose a party, or changed the party selection to Republican after the fact.
“Both are misdemeanors and certainly with over 900 of them it lends a little bit of credence to an investigation,” she said. “My hope would be we would get a conviction, but certainly at least to have criminal charges filed.”
The registrations were sent to the Secretary of State Election Fraud Investigation Unit in Sacramento, and they are now conducting an investigation.
An individual identifying himself as Brandon Torchia filled out forms that document the voter registration cards taken from the clerk-recorder’s office, Rodewald said. Though Rodewald has been in contact with him, none of the contact information he provided panned out. The address listed is actually the address for University of the Pacific in Stockton. The website for Conservative Citizens Group redirects to a website called Citizens for Constitutional Government. Calls to the owner of the domain name were not answered.
Although it is common practice for political groups to pay workers for each registration completed, the chairman of the San Luis Obispo County Republican Party John Peschong said they only pay $7 per registration to clubs such as the Republican Women or Young Republicans, which have previously signed contracts with them. When Torchia approached the SLO County Republican Party with copies of the registration forms he had turned into Rodewald’s office and asked for payment, Peschong said he knew something was wrong.
“I had never met these guys,” Peschong said. “They just showed up and said, ‘Here’s 900 registrations, give us money.’”
Voters who are or wish to be registered in San Luis Obispo County can visit slovote.com to register or check on their status. A California driver’s license or valid ID is all that’s required to register online in any county.
“I encourage everybody to use those resources and make sure they’re registered where they want to be,” Rodewald said.
Rodewald said most of the 650 students whose registration got caught up in the fraud were between 18 and 20 years old, which leads to one of the most troubling parts of the situation — most of those students are first-time voters.
“I would think it would make you question the whole process,” she said. “That’s certainly not what we strive to have happen, especially with our younger voters.”
Michael Latner, a political science assistant professor who specializes in political behavior, said this election is important for young voters — in 2004 there was a huge leap in eligible turnout amongst 18 to 24 year olds, the youngest bracket of voters, and another increase in 2008, Latner said.
“There’s something particularly magical about the third election cycle,” Latner said. “If an eligible voter turns out to vote for their first three major elections, they’re probably going to be a voter for the rest of their life. The same is true for the other side as well. If you don’t vote in your first three elections, you’ll never be a voter … So this is a really crucial election.”
Correcting at Cal Poly
Stephan Lamb, the director of Student Life and Leadership at Cal Poly, used the info Rodewald gave him to connect as many student email addresses as he could to the late registration cards.
“We wanted to partner with the county clerk’s office and get the message as effectively as we could to that group of impacted students,” Lamb said.
The email, sent just before fall quarter began, notified the recipients that their registration was one of the 900 that had been handled fraudulently. Although Lamb said at least 650 emails were sent, Rodewald said they only received a few phone calls and 10 to 15 email responses.
“If you received this message, make sure you go through the process of registering again,” Lamb said.