Having police come to your home wielding weapons and asking questions about your voter registration status just days before an election sends a clear signal.
That signal wasn’t lost on residents of Hmong communities in rural northern California, who said police came to their doors doing just that earlier this month. They said authorities also set up a roadway checkpoint to target Hmong drivers, threatening to arrest and prosecute them if they voted illegally.
Following those allegations of flagrant voter intimidation in the lead-up to Tuesday’s state primary, the sheriff of Siskiyou County, where just about 43,000 people reside, told TPM his deputies played only a “minor” role in a state-led gumshoe probe into potential voter registration fraud. Sheriff Jon Lopey (pictured right) said deputies accompanied investigators to provide security in an area he described as potentially dangerous and “inundated” with what he estimated to be 2,000 illegal marijuana grow sites.
But the accounts of voter intimidation were serious enough that investigators from the Secretary of State’s Office, joined by staffers from the state Attorney General’s Office, were dispatched on June 7 to monitor polling places across Siskiyou County.
“What began as an investigation of alleged voter fraud quickly evolved into an investigation of potential voter intimidation,” a spokesman said in a statement emailed to TPM.
Ironically, the Secretary of State’s Office was being forced to look into acts of alleged voter intimidation performed in service of its very own probe.
While Lopey declined to identify the state agency involved in the initial voter fraud probe, telling TPM “they asked us to not even mention their name,” the Secretary of State’s Office confirmed its investigators were on the ground after “initial questions” were raised by the county registrar.
A spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office acknowledged that on “rare occasions,” local law enforcement will accompany state investigators, who are by law prohibited from carrying weapons, for security reasons. The spokesman also fired back at the sheriff for overzealousness, which he said was construed as efforts to intimidate voters.
“It is the general policy of the Secretary of State to decline commenting on any investigation and further advised the Sheriff of that policy and that any sort of comment, by anyone, would be inappropriate and could compromise the integrity of our efforts,” spokesman Sam Mahood said in an email to TPM. “The local sheriff and district attorney instead chose to repeatedly issue statements that were viewed as efforts to intimidate the Hmong community.”
Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, told TPM it was uncommon to see state and local authorities use resources in that way to investigate potential voter fraud, particularly so close to an election.
“This is pretty unusual behavior for this day and age, even given the acrimony that surrounds our elections these days,” he said.
Hmong residents “were terrified of going to vote” after the investigation, Lori Shellenberger, voting rights director of ACLU California, said in a phone interview with TPM.
“There was really widespread fear,” she said. “It was creating an increasing atmosphere of intimidation in that community.”
Shellenberger contacted the Secretary of State’s and Attorney General’s Offices after she said it “became increasingly clear to me that this was potentially a targeted campaign against an ethnic minority.”
A press release from the sheriff’s office, dated June 3, confirmed a “series of voter-fraud investigations” on May 31 and June 1-2 in three areas of the county: the Klamath River Country Estates in Hornbrook, Mt. Shasta Vista and Mt. Shasta Forest.
Siskiyou County District Attorney Kirk Andrus warned in the statement that possible voter “fraud and abuse” cases in the future would be “very seriously” pursued by his office.
“We are pleased the State took the voter fraud allegations seriously and initiated their investigative effort,” Andrus said. The district attorney’s office did not respond this week to multiple requests for comment from TPM.
But the sheriff strenuously denied that his deputies engaged in a voter intimidation campaign. Lopey said that out of 200 “questionable” voter registration cases, officers visited just 39 sites, many of which he said were unoccupied. He later told TPM that deputies actually made contact with less than 10 residents, which he said “hardly constitutes some wide scale effort to suppress the vote.”
He also slammed residents’ account of a law enforcement checkpoint as “blatantly false” and called allegations of intimidation an “outrageous” effort to “demean and vilify” law enforcement. Lopey acknowledged one of his officers did have a service rifle slung under his arm, which he described as a “prudent” safety measure in a potentially unsafe area. He cited the illegal grow sites, an uptick in people who were hostile and uncooperative with police, and hundreds of resident complaints about people living in tents or without running water.
The sheriff, who’s been open about his affiliation with the “Constitutional Sheriffs” movement, went on to accuse the ACLU and high-powered attorneys of targeting his small, rural county to coerce and denigrate law enforcement.
“As a sheriff, I’m not going to apologize for doing my job,” he told TPM. “I believe this is an irresponsible attack against public officials and an effort by the ACLU and San Francisco attorneys to harass and demean and vilify us.”
While the U.S. census shows just 1 percent of the county’s population is Asian, Lopey said the demographics in the area have “shifted dramatically” in recent years. He suggested immigrants may have been coerced into committing voter fraud by “big bosses” with land interests in the area.
“I believe some of these Asian Americans were manipulated, perhaps cajoled or coerced into filling out voter registration cards” by “very aggressive” people from the San Francisco Bay area, he said. “A lot of these people haven’t been here for a long time.”
TPM composite by Christine Frapech: Secretary of State Alex Padilla, left, Sheriff Jon Lopey, right.