An Election Day-eve accusation by a Republican organization of massive, sweeping voter fraud in the 16th Senate District race fizzled Monday after Kern County elections officials reviewed vote-by-mail ballots cast in the race.
None of the 26 vote-by-mail ballots alleged to have been hijacked were used to cast a vote. In fact, the U.S. Postal Service had simply returned them, untouched, to the Kern County elections office as undeliverable.
Luis Alvarado, chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Los Angeles, had bombarded the media over the weekend with claims that his group had uncovered about 30 verified examples of voter fraud in Bakersfield.
That, he said, meant that "hundreds, if not thousands, of votes were cast illegally" in the 16th District.
The group's attorney, Ashlee N. Titus, wrote in a statement to the Kern County elections office that the group was "working on a 'get-out-the-vote' campaign" to fill the state Senate seat when it discovered what it believed was voter fraud.
Titus works for the Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk firm, which also represents the California Republican Party.
Alvarado didn't report the findings to elections officials until nearly noon on Monday, drawing criticism from Kern elections chief Karen Rhea after her subsequent investigation.
"It is unfortunate that the Republican National Hispanic Assembly did not contact our office with their concerns at the outset of their investigation as this would have saved much unnecessary concern," she said.
Alvarado said the group became concerned after hearing of voters who had returned ballots in the special election even though they hadn't voted in the 2012 presidential election.
Some votes had been sent, he said, from abandoned homes. One voter, whose ballot packet county records show had been returned to the Kern County elections office, signed an affidavit that he had never cast a vote in the election, Rhea said.
Still other ballot packets were returned from addresses where the registered voter no longer lived.
But Kern County elections officials said there was no fraud. The ballots had been automatically sent to voters who had registered to receive them at those addresses but the voters had moved and so the post office automatically sent them unopened back to elections.
"We have investigated each of the 26 complaints," Rhea said. "In every case, the ballots were received by our office as undeliverable."
Rhea said the GOP group's handling of the situation "lends to distrust in the process that is unfounded."
She wanted voters to know that there is a process designed to catch fraudulent votes and her office is committed to uncovering abuse of the system.
"We do a lot to ensure the integrity of the election," Rhea said.
Alvarado did not return calls asking for a response to the elections office findings.
He denied that the goal of his investigation was to influence the outcome of the race by soliciting negative news coverage on the eve of the election. He denied that his group was working on the Senate District 16 campaign.
"We are not trying to move any candidate any which way," Alvarado said.
But Allan Hoffenblum, who edits the California Target Book -- a review of state politics -- said a big Election Day story could do just that.
"If you guys carry it, it could have an impact," he said.
The state Senate race features five candidates with front-runners Democrat Leticia Perez and Republican Andy Vidak locked in a tight contest with millions of party dollars on the line.
Election Day is Tuesday.
Vidak campaign manager Tim Orman said Vidak's camp had nothing to do with the Hispanic Assembly's accusations.
None of the campaign's street operations "generals" remembers working with the group, he said. Orman cheered the news that there was no voter fraud.
"I think it's good news for the voters that there is integrity in the process," he said. "Everybody wants to know that their vote has been counted."
Perez called the activities of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly "outrageous and despicable."
"Anyone who is locally involved and connected to this group should be asked to explain how they became involved with this group and how they came to make these unfounded accusations," she said. "It's clearly meant to discourage people from voting. It is meant to discourage Democrats from voting."