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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Federal Judicial Panel Removes Obstacle to Recall Election

Resolution comes after Monterey County drops plans to consolidate Latino precincts.

September 06, 2003|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — Removing one of the last legal obstacles to the Oct. 7 recall election, a panel of federal judges ended a case Friday that had accused Monterey County of violating the federal Voting Rights Act.

The resolution of the case came after Monterey County agreed to drop plans to consolidate five precincts and polling places in heavily Latino districts and to add bilingual workers.

Those concessions prompted the U.S. Justice Department to sign off on the county's voting plans. Previously, the Justice Department had balked at some of the plans for consolidating precincts.

Resolution of the Monterey County case leaves just one legal matter that still appears to have potential to delay the election -- a case by the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the use of punch-card voting machines in Los Angeles and other urban counties. A federal district court ruled against that suit last month; the case is scheduled to be considered Thursday by a federal appeals court.

The Monterey County case had been brought by civil rights groups, which sued under the U.S. Voting Rights Act. That law requires localities with a history of low voter turnout and high minority populations to receive Justice Department approval in advance for all election changes.

Robert Rubin, director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, one of the organizations that challenged Monterey's plans, said the group has no plans for further legal action.

"We are satisfied that the county was forced to withdraw changes that we believe would have a discriminatory effect on Latino voters," Rubin said. "That was the purpose of the suit, and we feel vindicated."

The county initially proposed changes that would have forced some Latinos to travel many miles to vote at precincts in predominantly non-Latino areas.

Steve Reyes, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, declined to say whether his organization planned additional challenges.

"That is something we will keep in mind," Reyes said.

Since Aug. 15, when the case was first heard in federal court, Monterey County has been blocked from sending absentee ballots to voters living overseas. The judges on Friday ended that court order.

Now three weeks behind schedule for overseas voting, Monterey County election officials said they may e-mail ballots or send them by express delivery to 350 voters, mostly members of the military and their families living abroad.

"I will do everything I can to ensure that those overseas voters get their ballots," Tony Anchundo, Monterey County's registrar of voters, said after a court hearing in San Jose.

The ruling by a three-judge district court panel made up of U.S. District Court Judges Jeremy Fogel and Ronald M. Whyte and U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Consuelo M. Callahan said that the judges would retain jurisdiction in the case to ensure that Monterey County complies with its amended plan for the election.

"The right to vote is fundamental to a democratic society, and thus litigation to ensure compliance with the provisions of the Voting Rights Act is of the utmost importance," Fogel wrote for the panel.

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Special correspondent Imran Vittachi contributed to this report.

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