Inside the bizarre story of a California man arrested with 300 voting ballots -- and the right-wing outrage that followed

Inside the bizarre story of a California man arrested with 300 voting ballots -- and the right-wing outrage that followed

After Southern California resident Eduardo Mena was arrested in August 2021 and found with 300 election ballots in his possession, right-wing media were quick to make election fraud claims. But according to Sgt. Mark Ponegalek of the Torrance Police Department, there is no evidence that Mena had election fraud in mind — as those ballots were among the many allegedly stolen items in his possession.

Mena was arrested on August 16, 2021, and SFGate reporter Eric Ting notes that the following night, the Torrance Police Department posted details of his arrest on Facebook.

The Facebook post read, “Last night, officers responded to a male subject passed out in a vehicle in the 7-11 parking lot. Officers learned he was a felon & located Xanax pills on him. Officers continued their investigation and discovered a loaded firearm, methamphetamine, thousands of pieces of mail, a scale & multiple CA drivers licenses and credit cards in other individuals’ names.”

The “thousands of pieces of mail” part is important, as the ballots were only part of the mail the Torrance Police suspected Mena of stealing. But it was the voting ballots that right-wing media zeroed in on. Ponegalek specifically talked about the ballots in another Facebook post.

“Ponegalek said that early signs — the multiple driver's licenses and credit cards — pointed to the case being one of stolen mail, identity theft and bank fraud, which is precisely what investigators found,” Ting explains. “In November, the suspect, 34-year-old Eduardo Mena, was charged with bank fraud and identity theft, with the police department putting out a statement last week noting that ‘investigators have not uncovered any evidence indicating Mena intended to engage in any type of election fraud,’ and alleging that Mena stole the mail from a Postal Service vehicle. But the damage had already been done.”

Ting adds, “Ponegalek said that after the second Facebook post went out, he talked to news outlets and stressed that the ballots made up a small proportion of the stolen mail, but it was difficult to convey that necessary context beyond headlines relaying only that 300 ballots had been stolen.”

In 2021, California Republicans tried to unseat Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom via a recall election. The GOP frontrunner ended up being Larry Elder, a far-right talk radio based in Los Angeles. Newsom survived the recall.

The last time California Republicans had wanted to unseat a Democratic governor, it worked. Gov. Gray Davis was voted out of office via a recall election in 2003, and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor. But there was a key difference between 2003 and 2021; Schwarzenegger, now a scathing critic of former President Donald Trump, is a moderate conservative — not an extremist. Elder is an extremist and a conspiracy theorist.

Elder is also a flip-flopper. The radio host was a libertarian during the 1990s but became a neocon during the George W. Bush years — only to reinvent himself as a MAGA Trumpster during Trump’s presidency. Between his far-right positions and his flip-flopping, Elder was a very flawed candidate.

Perhaps California Republicans would have had a better chance against Newsom had they gotten behind someone more moderate instead of getting behind the far-right Elder — then blaming Elder’s loss on nonexistent voter fraud and claiming that Mena was part of a conspiracy. But that conspiracy didn’t exist.

Ponegalek told SFGate, “Election fraud is a specific crime, not general intent crime. We have to show that someone is actually doing election fraud or planning to do election fraud, and didn't just steal unopened mail-in ballots along with other mail. Then that's just simply theft of mail.”

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