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A Double-Edged Sword for Latinos

Efforts to delay the election work against Cruz Bustamante's bid for the governor's office.

August 20, 2003|Kenneth P. Miller | Kenneth P. Miller is an attorney and assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Add one more oddity to a recall election that already has plenty of them. Latino advocacy groups are suing to delay an election that could produce California's first Latino governor in the statehood era.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante is well positioned to emerge victorious from the recall vote. He is the only prominent Democrat on a succession ballot that features four high-profile Republicans: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom McClintock, Bill Simon and Peter Ueberroth.

If voters decide to recall Gov. Gray Davis, Bustamante has a great advantage in the race to succeed him. As Republicans split their votes, the lieutenant governor will probably win the lion's share of the Democratic vote. That should be enough for him to overcome even a strong showing by Schwarzenegger.

One would expect Latino advocacy organizations to work for that outcome by focusing on voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in support of Bustamante. Instead, they are focused on postponing the election.

The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, or SVREP, a prominent Latino group, filed suit in federal court in Los Angeles to postpone the recall election because six counties in the state, including Los Angeles County, had not replaced punch-card voting devices with more modern equipment.

Under a 2002 federal court consent decree, the counties are scheduled to make the changes in time for the March primary election. They are not ready to do so before the Oct. 7 recall election.

Seeking to extend the logic of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Bush vs. Gore, SVREP argues that using the punch cards in the recall election threatens to dilute the voting strength of residents of these six counties if there are problems like Florida's "hanging chads." Latinos and other ethnic minorities make up a higher percentage of the population in these counties than in the rest of the state.

In truth, however, the U.S. Supreme Court expressly ruled in Bush vs. Gore that the equal protection clause did not require the use of identical voting devices in every jurisdiction, and the local consent decree allows the use of punch cards in California until March 2004.

Moreover, California has held numerous elections using the punch-card system -- including last November's gubernatorial election -- without incident, and there is little evidence that use of the punch cards would lead to a constitutional violation in this case.

The punch-card suit is part of a flurry of litigation over the last month, much of which has been led or joined by Latinos, to challenge or delay the recall. Although the courts have rejected most of the challenges, some suits, including the punch-card case, are pending. Latinos have continued to press forward with a litigation strategy even after Bustamante's Aug. 7 entry into the race.

Why should Latino advocacy groups continue to seize on relatively inconsequential legal claims and thereby possibly forestall the election of a Latino governor? Is it residual loyalty to Davis, a certain ambivalence toward Bustamante or something else? One explanation might be a wild-card feature of the recall: the presence on the ballot of Proposition 54.

Called the Racial Privacy Initiative by its sponsor, UC Regent Ward Connerly, Proposition 54 would limit the state's ability to collect information about an individual's race or ethnicity. Prominent Latino organizations strongly oppose the initiative, and for some Latinos beating Connerly may be more urgent than helping Bustamante.

Conventional wisdom holds that it would be harder to defeat Proposition 54 in the recall election than in March, when a high Democratic turnout is expected for the Democratic presidential primary.

Latino and other minority groups' lawsuits have failed to decouple the proposition from the recall. The punch-card litigation seeks to push everything -- the recall and its rider, Proposition 54 -- to the March ballot.

Whatever the explanation for the Latino groups' strategy, their current effort to postpone the election rather than mobilizing voters to elect Bustamante is a striking subplot in the recall drama.

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