ACLU asks delay of recall vote
Decision could come later this week
LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- A federal judge said Monday he would try to rule by Wednesday on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union that requests a delay of California's gubernatorial recall election.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit earlier this month arguing that as many as 8 million California voters could be disfranchised by what it described as defective machines that still use punch card ballots. The state argued that the October 7 election would be fair and should be allowed to proceed.
At least six California counties still have punch card ballots, and all have high concentrations of minority voters, according to the ACLU. California has been updating its voting technology, and has said punch card machines will be replaced in all precincts by March 2004.
U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson said he will consider arguments made in court Monday by both sides and would try to "come to a decision promptly."
Lawyers for Democratic Gov. Gray Davis filed a similar lawsuit in state court, asking to delay the recall until March. The California Supreme Court turned it down.
A delay could help Davis by giving him more time to win over disenchanted Californians. Also, the March presidential primary is expected to have a strong Democratic turnout.
Justice Department signs off
The U.S. Justice Department signed off on the election Monday, saying it does not violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The department had been asked to review election procedures by a federal judge in San Jose who is hearing another lawsuit that questions whether minority rights would be safeguarded in four counties.
The lawsuit singles out Monterey County, where election officials are trying to save money by cutting polling places from 190 to 86 and hiring fewer Spanish-speaking poll workers. The suit says such cutbacks could discriminate against voters.
Under the Voting Rights Act, all changes in election practices in Monterey, Kings, Yuba and Merced counties, which have a history of low turnout by minority voters, must be approved by the Justice Department's civil rights lawyers.
The suit also seeks to delay the election. The judge is not bound by the Justice Department's advice. A hearing is scheduled August 29.
California voters will be faced with a two-part ballot when they go to the polls.
In part one, they will be asked to say yes or no to recalling Davis, who was elected to his second term in November 2002 but has seen his popularity plummet amid state budget woes.
In the second part, they must pick their choice to replace him, should the recall succeed, from a list of 135 candidates.
At least six California counties still use punch card ballots, and all have high concentrations of minority voters, according to the ACLU.
Those counties are Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Clara, Solano and Mendocino. The group says the recall vote should not take place until those counties have new voting machines like the rest of California's counties.
In its lawsuit, the ACLU said the continued use of punch card machines would "needlessly and unlawfully disenfranchise African-American, Latino and Asian-American voters."
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement, "I don't believe any one of us would like to see a repeat of the Florida  presidential election debacle here in the Golden State."
In 2000, the ACLU filed suit not only on behalf of Florida voters but also those in other states, including California. The state then agreed to update its voting machines by the March 2004 presidential primary.
"If the October election goes forward, we can predict with absolute certainty that every Californian's vote will not count," Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement. "Democracy in California should not hang by a chad."
Meanwhile, the recall campaign intensifies this week as the top candidates hoping to replace Davis broadcast their first TV and radio ads, and others unveil their plans to fix the state's economic ills. And Davis, in his first major speech on the recall effort, will come out swinging. (Full story)
CNN producer Terry Frieden contributed to this report.