Inquiry into campus voter preregistration
By Tina Richards
An investigation into the pre-registration of future voters at Richland and El Modena High Schools determined that no laws were broken or education codes violated by the volunteers or the nonprofit OC Voter Information Project (OCVIP) that conducted the outreach.
The investigation, conducted by Kathleen Kelly of the Karen Bell Law Office, and costing Orange Unified $10,000, was done at the behest of OUSD trustees who believed that volunteers Andrea Yamasaki and Kris Erickson were not simply preregistering students, but garnering support for their campaigns for school board seats. Several board members also expressed concerns that the student information collected on registration forms would not be submitted to the registrar of voters, but used by OCVIP for partisan purposes. The board agreed by a 5-2 vote that an outside investigation was warranted. Trustees Kathy Moffat and Yamasaki voted against it, both objecting to the cost of an investigation and noting that participating volunteers were willing to answer any questions from the board.
Nothing to see here
At the Oct. 11 board meeting, Kelly reported that she had reviewed documents, interviewed principals, teachers and administrators at each school, as well as six volunteers, a field director of OCVIP, Yamasaki and Erickson and a representative from the county registrar, who assured her that the office had received the students’ forms.
She said she found the witnesses credible, and concluded that there was no violation of statutes or regulations, no use of district funds or services, no urging of support for any candidates, and no violation of the education code.
The voter drives at both high schools conformed to a recent state law permitting 16 and 17-year-olds to preregister to vote. California designated a period in April as High School Voter Registration Week. The principals and staff were aware of it and welcomed volunteer efforts to make it happen. OCVIP was selected to secure the registration forms and provide a tutorial to volunteers because, Kelly said, it is one of the few prepared to conduct nonpartisan registration for young people. “It’s rare,” she explained, “youth are a new facet.”
Legal and above-board
In filling out the forms, students were asked for either a driver’s license number or the last four digits of their social security numbers or phone number (in case the registrar needed to call). “There was no tampering,” Kelly stressed. “The forms were returned to the registrar. There are numbers on them. The registrar knows how many come back. Anyone can check them out, but they must swear to abide by the regulations under penalty of perjury. The returned forms were scanned into the registrar’s system.”
Her only recommendation for the future was that the district make sure all volunteers know the rules, and that each high school have a designated administrator to provide oversight.
Shortly after the April preregistration outreach and the ensuing alarm that caused a like event at Orange High to be cancelled, Orange Unified created a policy to guide the process in the future. The district also conducted its own investigation, and found no evidence of wrong-doing by volunteers or staff.
Following Kelly’s presentation, Yamasaki expressed disappointment in her colleagues who authorized the investigation. “It caused a lot of stress,” she said. “This was a frivolous, meritless investigation, and I want to apologize to the volunteers.”
Kathy Moffat also spoke up for the volunteers. “These are outstanding, longtime school volunteers,” she said. “They did an excellent job. And what did they get? Accused. Maligned. I believe this investigation was unnecessary, insulting, wrong-headed and the board owes an apology. It is appropriate to prepare a resolution of apology to those whose reputations were impugned.”
Instead of apologizing, Board Members Rick Ledesma and John Ortega doubled down. “My concern was in two areas,” Ledesma reiterated. “The organization that assisted was partisan. I checked their website. You (Kelly) should have opened the scope of your investigation. It’s inappropriate that two volunteers were running for school board. It was self-serving, borderline unethical.”
“And,” he added, “I’m not sure if it wasn’t an election year, they would have volunteered.” He suggested that board candidates should not visit school sites during election years.
Not listening still
John Ortega revisited his concerns about student data. “It has to be protected,” he said. “The registrar doesn’t track what comes back in. You can check out forms, but they don’t know if they come back. The registrar of voters is the only one who should be handling student registration. We can’t have a partisan organization dealing with kids’ minds.”
Andrea Yamasaki, who earned her board seat by volunteering at OUSD elementary, middle and high schools to the point that she was well known district-wide, took exception to Ledesma’s charge that she wouldn’t have volunteered if this was not an election year. “Preventing board members from going to school sites during elections is not realistic,” she insisted. “Candidates had not yet declared in April. Are you going to stop me from volunteering? Suggesting it was just politicking is not true.”
Tim Surridge offered that staff didn’t know where the student information was. “OCVIP is not a volunteer,” he said. “We don’t know what they did with the information. We have an obligation to protect students. Registering should be done in the classroom, parents are not the right ones.“
Superintendent Gunn Marie Hansen confirmed that a policy is now in place, that moving forward, it would be district staff handling preregistration. She also assured Surridge that staff knew where the student data was – and is.