SAN JOSE — A federal judge Friday warned that he may put the Oct. 7 recall election on hold because four California counties have not complied with a key civil rights law governing voting procedures.
U.S. District Judge Jeremy D. Fogel gave officials two weeks to resolve the problem and, in the meantime, ordered Monterey County, where the case was filed, not to send any absentee ballots to people living overseas.
The plaintiffs contend that minority voters might be discriminated against because there would be fewer polling places than in a regular election.
If the issue is not resolved by Aug. 29, the judge said, he could order a complete halt to preparations for the vote -- a move that state officials said would force a postponement of the election.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
California primary -- Several recent articles in Section A and the California section have said that the state's presidential primary election will be held March 4. It will be held March 2.
The order marks the first time a court has intervened in the recall process. Several other legal challenges to the recall have failed so far, but more are pending, including a suit scheduled to be heard Monday in federal court in Los Angeles.
"This court is extremely reluctant to intervene in or disrupt the electoral process unless it clearly is compelled to do so," Fogel said in an order late Friday. "At the same time, permitting voting
Although Fogel's decision directly affects only Monterey County, the entire election is at stake because the state cannot have an election without all counties participating.
The decision worried voting officials, who already have been warning that they have barely enough time to organize the election before the balloting is scheduled to begin.
"At this point, we don't want to delay this election," said Steve Weir, the registrar in Contra Costa County who has served as an informal coordinator for recall preparations for county registrars throughout the state.
"If you stop us now, it just means we have less time to prepare for Oct. 7 and less of a chance to have a successful election."
The case involves a portion of the Voting Rights Act that requires state and local governments in some parts of the country to receive permission from the U.S. Justice Department before changing any voting procedures -- a requirement known as pre-clearance.
To grant pre-clearance, Justice Department lawyers must determine that the proposed voting changes will not have the effect of discriminating against minority voters.
In California, Monterey, Kings, Merced and Yuba counties are subject to the pre-clearance requirement because of low voter turnout and discrimination in previous elections.
Campaign officials for Gov. Gray Davis said they were pleased with the judge's order but that they would continue to prepare for the election.
"Since taxpayers will be forced to spend more than $70 million on this special election -- money that would be better spent on education, health care and public safety -- it is imperative to preserve voters' rights to a fair and equitable election," said Peter Ragone, Davis' campaign communications director.
Richie Ross, chief strategist for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's campaign, also praised the ruling, saying the protections in the Voting Rights Act are more important than the recall.
"People were killed to win the Voting Rights Act of 1965," he said. "Nothing can interfere with the Voting Rights Act."
The act, first passed by Congress in 1965, was initially designed to safeguard the rights of blacks in the South. Portions of it have been extended over the years to cover other parts of the country with high minority populations and histories that suggest discrimination at the ballot box.
A spokesman for Bill Simon Jr.'s campaign said "the will of the people should not be thwarted by a federal judge."
"If you're speaking of voters' rights, you have to think about the rights of the nearly 2 million people who signed the recall petition to see this election go forward," spokesman K.B. Forbes said.
Lawyers for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights brought the case against Monterey County, saying the decision to reduce the number of polling places there from the usual 190 to 86 for the recall vote required pre-clearance. Voting officials in many counties have reduced the number of polling places for the recall vote, saying that doing so is the only way to organize an election on short notice.
State officials concede they need federal approval. Last week, they asked the Justice Department to approve the election plan for the four counties.
During a hearing before Fogel on Friday morning, Deputy Atty. Gen. Leslie Lopez said federal officials are reviewing the matter on an expedited basis but have refused to provide a date for making a decision. The Justice Department has promised the issue would be resolved "well before" Oct. 7, she said.