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Election-Rule Bills Passed by Assembly Anger GOP Minority

Republicans accuse Democrats of revising the rules to maintain their power in the state.

June 04, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — A batch of election-rule bills passed in recent days by Assembly Democrats drew an angry response Tuesday from Republicans, who accused their counterparts of trying to manipulate California voting rules to solidify their political power.

"Democrats want to strengthen their chokehold in Sacramento by taking unprecedented steps to undermine the will of the people," said Assemblyman Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark). "What's worse, it's under the guise of revamping our precious election process. This arrogance of power is wrong for Californians."

With 48 seats, Democrats hold a majority in the 80-member Assembly. They also dominate the Senate, where 25 Democrats and 15 Republicans hold seats. The strong majority in the Assembly has allowed Democrats in recent weeks to pass a number of bills that would change state election rules despite Republican outcries. The bills must be approved by the Senate and signed by Gov. Gray Davis to become law.

Among the bills that have passed in recent days is AB 526 by Assemblywoman Wilma Chan (D-Alameda), which would permit Alameda County residents to register to vote during the two weeks leading up to an election, including the day votes are cast. Current law requires voters to register at least 15 days before an election.

The bill was approved in the Assembly by a 43-34 vote. It asks the Secretary of State to test and then assess whether the three-year Alameda County experiment should be expanded to other counties. Proposition 52, which appeared on the ballot in November, would have allowed same-day registration statewide, but voters defeated that proposal.

Former Secretary of State Bill Jones, a Republican, opposed that initiative, saying that it could lead to voter fraud; supporters said it would broaden the pool of people who participate in elections.

Some Republicans believe that Alameda County was deliberately chosen for Democratic political advantage. Part of the county falls within the district represented by freshman Republican Assemblyman Guy Houston of Livermore, who won the seat with 54% of the vote last fall.

"This is a seat Democrats think they should have and although they lost fair and square last year, they're now trying to change the rules to take away the voice of the people," said Peter DeMarco, spokesman for Assembly Minority Leader Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks).

Chan countered that the Alameda County Board of Supervisors sponsored the bill to boost voter turnout. The bill, she said, applies only to elections held entirely within the county, such as those for school boards and city councils.

Houston voted against the bill, he said, because people who register the same day they vote probably haven't had time to educate themselves on candidates and issues.

"I just don't think it's good public policy to have people vote with no information at all," Houston said.

The Democratic majority in the Assembly also infuriated Republicans by passing AB 587, a bill introduced by Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles). The bill requires the Secretary of State to include space on voter registration cards for people to volunteer their race or ethnicity.

Some Republicans opposed it as divisive.

"The ballot box should be private and without race," said Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi (R-Lodi).

Ridley-Thomas called the current knowledge about who votes in California faulty, dated and inadequate. With better information, he said, government could target its voter outreach programs. Racial data, he said, "can and should be used for constructive means." The bill passed 41 to 30.

Other election bills pushed by Democrats and opposed by Republicans include:

* AB 346 by Assemblyman John Longville (D-Rialto) would allow a registered voter to challenge election results if he or she tries to vote and is denied the right. Republicans argued that the bill could lead to frivolous challenges from voters who must wait in long lines or have trouble finding their polling place. The bill passed the Assembly 47 to 32.

* AB 461, also by Longville, would require election officials to err on the side of the voter when judging the validity of provisional ballots. Such ballots are used when a person's claim to be properly registered to vote cannot be proven by officials on election day. Provisional ballots are set aside and counted only after the voter's registration is established.

* AB 828 by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) would require county election officials to have a backup plan for collecting votes. Leno wrote the bill after nearly 20 San Francisco polling places ran out of ballots in November's election, but he said it could help in case the electronic voting systems of the future fail. The bill passed 47 to 31.

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