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Campaign's voting help questioned Fresno candidate's backers aid Hmong.



BY: Jim Davis THE FRESNO BEE, February 23, 2002, Saturday


A Fresno City Council candidate said Friday he plans to ask for an investigation into whether a supporter for one of his opponents wrongly told Hmong voters how to vote.

Mike Dages, who is trying to win the District 5 seat that represents southeast Fresno, said supporters for Silvia Astorga Salcido were bringing elderly Hmong to the county elections office in downtown Fresno to register to vote, something allowable under state law.

But Dages said one of her supporters crossed the line by having them vote absentee and pointing at the ballots and telling the voters in Hmong to vote for Salcido.

"I've actually had phone calls from Hmong who are upset," Dages said. "They didn't know there were other candidates. They wanted to change their vote, and I told them it was too late." But Salcido said that neither she nor her supporters have done anything wrong: "He's saying that he would ask for an investigation, and I say that we would welcome it."

Salcido said she and her supporters were trying to get Hmong citizens to register to vote. She criticized the elections department for not having staff members capable of helping Hmong voters.

County Clerk Victor Salazar said he hired an election worker who is fluent in Hmong immediately after the dispute Tuesday.

"We had an interview at 2 p.m.," Salazar said. "She [the job candidate] was willing to come in at 1 p.m, and we didn't let her go home."

The third candidate in the race, Marcella Rivera, said she hadn't heard about the dispute, but she felt that it was probably just bickering between Dages and Salcido. There are more important issues in the campaign, she said.

Residents can vote absentee beginning 29 days before an election, and a voter may be assisted by up to two people, according to state law. The elections office keeps track of absentee voters and who assists them.

Salazar said Salcido and her campaign workers brought in 109 people over several days who were assisted by her Hmong translators.

On Feb. 15, Salazar received a complaint about Salcido bringing in the Hmong residents. He called the Secretary of State's Office, which investigates voter fraud. He also spoke with county counsel and set up appointments for Tuesday with Salcido and Dages, who had heard about it and called Salazar.

On Tuesday, Salazar told Dages that any candidate could bring voters to the office to register to vote and vote absentee and also could offer assistance by explaining the ballot. He also told Dages that he could have an observer present.

That afternoon, Dages had his campaign manager, Trai Her, watch Salcido's campaign workers as they helped a group of Hmong register to vote and cast their absentee ballots.

Her, who is fluent in Hmong, said one of the translators didn't read the ballot, but instead pointed out whom to vote for: "He said, 'It's this one,' and he pointed and that's the only one they punched."

Hue Vang, who is on Salcido's campaign committee and who said he was in the office, disputes that version of events.

Election workers said they saw Salcido's campaign workers point at the ballot, but they could not understand the conversation.

"We don't know what they were saying," Salazar said. "There wasn't anybody back there who is proficient in the Hmong language."

Later Tuesday, Salazar and his staff interviewed a new elections job applicant -- Yeng Xiong, 23, of Fresno, who speaks Hmong -- and hired her on the spot.

"My car was parked at the meter, so I called home to have them pick it up," Xiong said.

The reporter can be reached at jmdavis@fresnobee.com or 441-6171.

GRAPHIC: Mike Dages
Silvia Astorga Salcido
Marcella Rivera