Investigation or Intimidation? Controversy in Siskiyou County, CA

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Tuesday was a big day in California as Golden State voters went to the polls – but there was extra excitement (not the good kind) in Siskiyou County on the Oregon border, where the county sheriff engaged in a series of pre-Election Day actions that he said were intended to prevent voter fraud but were widely criticized as voter intimidation. The Redding Record Searchlight had the story on Election Day:

The state Attorney General’s Office representatives are in Siskiyou County today after reports Sheriff Jon Lopey has been intimidating residents of Hmong descent to keep them from voting in today’s election.

Representatives of the Secretary of State’s Office also went to the county to monitor voting there, said Rachele Huennekens, a spokeswoman for Attorney General’s Office.

“The California Attorney General’s office is assisting the Secretary of State’s office to monitor polling places in Siskiyou County, and ensure that all voters are able to cast their ballot free from intimidation, interference, or threats of violence,” Huennekens said.

“We are specifically monitoring reports of alleged voter intimidation among vulnerable minority populations, such as the Hmong community. Anyone who witnesses or is subject to voter intimidation should report it to the Secretary of State’s office,” she said.

The sheriff’s actions came to light in a call to advocates:

Lori Shellenberger, the American Civil Liberties Union’s director of the California Voting Rights Project, said she was contacted last week by a representative of the Hmong community that residents were being intimidated by the Sheriff’s Office.

Shellenberger said the Sheriff’s Office set up a checkpoint outside a subdivision near Hornbrook and stopped cars being driven by Hmongs only and asked them whether they were registered to vote.

“I’m not aware of this happening in any other county. This is extreme,” Shellenberger said.

The Sheriff’s Office issued a press release Friday indicating state officials, deputies, as well as the District Attorney and other county officials, visited several communities investigating voter fraud.

The sheriff said they visited the Klamath Country Estates in the Hornbrook area, Mt. Shasta Vista and the Mt. Shasta Forest area outside McCloud.

The sheriff said some county ordinance violations were observed and some people were issued misdemeanor citations for those violations.

The press release did not say what the alleged violations entailed or whether any voter fraud was uncovered.

“While we encourage all eligible citizens to register and vote in the upcoming election, we are supportive of the state investigative efforts because deliberate voter fraud is a serious criminal offense and monitoring and enforcement serves to protect the integrity of our voter registration and elections’ systems,” Sheriff Lopey said in the press release.

Local community members were especially upset by visits to voters’ homes:

[Advocates] said law enforcement went to homes where people of Hmong descent lived and told people they could not vote.

 “The story is particularly disturbing because the people being targeted are refugees who came here to escape oppression. Many of them fought alongside the United States to promote democratic freedoms,” the ACLU said in its press release.

Janelle Vang, a spokeswoman for the Hmong community, said county and state officials showed up at homes carrying assault rifles “in hand.”

She said officials threatened to arrest people who tried to vote. Many did not turn out to vote Tuesday because they were afraid, she said.

It’s not yet clear what’s at issue, but it appears to have something to do with some local ballot questions and questions about residency:

Andy Fusso, founder of Siskiyou Forward, said the sheriff’s actions may be related to some measures on Tuesday’s ballot, including two that have to do with banning outdoor marijuana growing.

Another would raise the sales tax by a half cent in the county to raise money to build a new jail …

Brian Ford, an attorney who represents the Hmong community, said the county has an issue with residency.

Some of the Hmongs don’t have a physical address for the property they own so they were providing an assessor’s parcel number or a description of the property location instead. He said county officials won’t accept that.

But Ford said both descriptions of residency — parcel number and location description — are valid to use to prove residency to vote.

Typically these issues are handled after an election, and if there is a residency problem the ballot is disqualified, Ford said. Residents are never jailed for paperwork errors, he said.

In this case the registrants were reported as suspicious and an investigation was started.

“These people just wanted to participate,” Ford said…

Siskiyou County Elections Clerk Colleen Setzer said she didn’t want to comment on the sheriff’s investigation or the accusations of intimidation.

She did say she did find problems with voter registrations and she forwarded those on to the Secretary of State’s office because she has no investigative authority.

The full story has yet to emerge, but this kind of law enforcement activity – especially the kind of visits and checkpoints with armed(?!) officers seen here – is highly unusual and deeply troubling. It will be interesting to see if and how state and even federal officials react; voter intimidation in a federal election like Tuesday’s primary can trigger civil or criminal enforcement of federal civil rights laws. Fortunately, this kind of activity is increasingly rare – but I have no doubt it was a scary few days for voters (especially Hmong voters) in Siskiyou.

Obviously, there’s more of the story to come … stay tuned.

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