OUSD will hire law firm to investigate student voter preregistration

By Tina Richards

Voter registration drives at two OUSD high schools will be investigated by an outside third party, in response to board concerns that the activity wasn’t nonpartisan, student data might not be secure, and two future board candidates volunteered in the effort.

High school students may now preregister to vote at age 16. When they turn 18, they can go straight to the polls. The State of California encourages preregistration, and designated April 16-27 as High School Voter Education weeks. A group of OUSD parents enlisted Orange County Voter Information Project (OCVIP) to set up tables at the high schools and help preregister interested students. OCVIP bills itself as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that aims to facilitate the voter registration process and inform voters about the importance of civic engagement in order to increase voter turnout.”

Trustees Rick Ledesma and John Ortega say OCVIP is not nonpartisan, that, in fact, it is very partisan and it was inappropriate to invite that group on campus.

Students stymied
Preregistration events were held at Richland and El Modena High Schools, staffed primarily by parent volunteers. OCVIP provided the necessary forms. A reported 200 students preregistered. 

Sophomore Lucy Lindell organized a like event at Orange High. She was shocked, she told trustees, when the district cancelled the preregistration drive just hours before it was scheduled to begin. “The only partisan thing,” she said, “is when the board cancelled it. I received three different explanations from four people. I still don’t know why. It seems shady.”

Ortega brought the matter to the board meeting, and asked for an investigation because he “looked into” OCVIP, and could not confirm it was authorized to register voters. He was also concerned that the data students provided on the voter forms – addresses, social security numbers – might be misused. “Will it go to the registrar, or will it be self-serving?” he asked. “We don’t know where it went, and we have to protect our students’ information.”

He was also disturbed that, among the volunteers at Richland and El Modena, were two board candidates.

Candidate volunteers
Trustee Andrea Yamasaki is running for reelection this November. Kris Erickson, active in two school bond campaigns and well-known to the board and district staff, may run for Tim Surridge’s seat. Both insist they were serving as volunteers only, that students didn’t know who either of them were, and that the process was completely nonpartisan. The information collected went directly to the registrar of voters.

“There was no agenda,” Erickson said. “You know me. You have my cell phone number. But you didn’t call me. You don’t have to pay a law firm to investigate, you can call me for free.”

“There were no laws broken,” Yamasaki explained. “I was there. I always volunteer – for everything. It’s my civic duty. I said nothing about any candidate. I saw nothing to indicate it was partisan. I can adamantly tell you, no such thing took place. Don’t spend taxpayer money on an investigation. Have OCVIP come here and tell you what happened.”

Kathy Moffat, calling into the meeting from out of town, stressed that the volunteers were not to blame. “Our board has provided no guidance about how to conduct voter registration,” she said. “And staff is working on a board policy to offer guidance. This discussion is unnecessary, improper, and should be tabled.” Her motion to drop the subject was seconded by Yamasaki, but failed.

Policy pondered
“We looked into it,” Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen explained. “We decided not to use an outside group, at least until we have a policy. We believe registration should be done by staff or students.”

Ledesma revisited his concern that student information ended up with a partisan group and not with the registrar, although parent volunteers assured the board that the voter forms were properly delivered. “We don’t know that," Ledesma said. “We need an investigation to find out where we dropped the ball. And we’ve never had candidates registering voters.”

“We’re getting lost in this,” Surridge advised. “The concern was that when staff looked into it, they didn’t know who was on campus. They didn’t check to see who OCVIP was. OCVIP is highly partisan and they were taking voter forms with student information -- information we’re supposed to safeguard.” And, he continued, “You politicize it when you run for office.”

The board voted 5-0 to hire an outside law firm (not the district’s contracted counsel, as originally proposed), with Moffat and Yamasaki dissenting. Assistant Superintendent Ed Kissee advised the board that a law firm would command about $250 per hour, and the investigation would take 10 to 20 hours.  

“Board policy should take care of this,” Moffatt reiterated. “There’s a student voter registration discussion policy on the agenda later tonight.”