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Bill to Seek Voters' Racial Data Signed

Minority organizations back the law; county election officials oppose it. People will be able to volunteer information when they register.

September 18, 2003|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — California will join seven other states in gathering race and ethnicity data from voters under a bill signed into law Wednesday by Gov. Gray Davis.

Endorsed by minority organizations but opposed by county elections officials, the law requires that every voter registration form include a space where people can volunteer their race or ethnicity. People who leave the space blank can still register to vote.

Californians may not see the forms for some time, because the law allows counties to use up their existing supply before the secretary of state goes to the expense of printing forms with an additional line.

"It could be a year or two before anybody gets to the point where new stock would be needed," said Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Conny McCormack.

California now collects no racial information about voters. Such information will help government and political groups target underrepresented populations, said Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), author of AB 587, which Davis signed into law.

Without such voluntary descriptions, campaigns must guess about who is voting and who is not based on surnames and census tract information, he said. The law would be overridden if voters pass Proposition 54, a measure on the recall election ballot that would prohibit state agencies, local governments, colleges and universities from collecting many kinds of racial and ethnic data.

Supporters include the California State Conference of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the California Assn. of Urban League Executives.

But the California Assn. of Clerks and Elections Officials opposed the bill, arguing that racial data could be used to discriminate against voters and that collecting the information could require expensive changes to software and data entry.

The Ridley-Thomas bill cleared the Democrat-dominated Legislature without a single Republican vote. In debate in the Assembly, Republicans accused Ridley-Thomas of politicizing the ballot box. They warned that such information could lead to divisive campaigning that pits one ethnic group against another.

According to the Federal Election Commission, seven other states collect such data. In Alabama and North Carolina, voters are required to describe their race, but their application will still be accepted if they do not. In Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Pennsylvania, such information is "requested." In South Carolina, racial data is required and voters are warned that their applications may be rejected if they do not fill them out.

Other election-related bills signed by Davis Wednesday:

* AB 448 by Sen. Charles Poochigian (R-Fresno) requires the state tax board to include a voter registration card with the personal income tax forms mailed each year to California residents.

* AB 225 by Assemblyman Jerome Horton (D-Inglewood) expands upon a 2001 law that bans the use of official state, city and county seals in campaign literature. The law sprang from a 2001 election in South Gate in which a deceptive mass mailer used the official seal of the Los Angeles County Superior Court to falsely announce that one City Council candidate had been "disqualified." Horton's bill bans politicians and campaign consultants from using the images of local government and special district seals in mass mailings. A violation is a misdemeanor.

* AB 915 by Assemblyman John Dutra (D-Fremont) requires that photographers stay at least 100 feet away as they record voters coming and going from a polling place. It is already illegal to solicit a vote within 100 feet of a polling place. Dutra said that photographing and videotaping near a polling place can intimidate immigrant and minority voters. Republicans opposed and Democrats backed the bill.

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