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Justice Department clears recall plans in California

ACLU pursues separate claim to delay vote

From Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

The Justice Department has signed off on the gubernatorial election plans in California.
The Justice Department has signed off on the gubernatorial election plans in California.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- California election plans for the October 7 balloting to recall Gov. Gray Davis do not violate the federal Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.

Washington's clearance of proposed election procedures in the four heavily Hispanic counties under Justice Department jurisdiction provides state officials with a federal blessing to proceed with the recall if a federal judge approves, as is expected.

"The attorney general does not interpose any objection to the setting of October 7, 2003, as the date for the special gubernatorial recall election," said a letter from the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division to the California secretary of state's office.

A federal judge in San Jose had requested the Justice Department's views in advance of an August 29 hearing on a lawsuit filed by minority groups. They argued an October election does not provide sufficient time to establish enough polling places and Spanish-speaking poll workers.

Monterey, Kings, Merced and Yuba counties' election plans have to be pre-cleared by the Justice Department under a section of the Voting Rights Act that protects against discrimination against minority language minorities.

In 1970, those four California counties, with historically low voting numbers, were added to the Voting Rights Act requiring federal pre-clearance on election plans. The 1965 law initially was aimed at Southern states where black voters had been subjected to discrimination.

Although the judge does not have to take the advice of the Justice Department, last week he indicated a reluctance to intervene until the Justice Department approved the plans. He ordered Monterey to temporarily halt plans to begin sending overseas ballots.

While giving the recall a green light, the Justice Department letter raised questions about California's plan to also vote in October on Proposition 54, which restricts the collection of racial data by the government. The proposal, which stems from the dispute over affirmative action programs, is opposed by several minority groups. It had been scheduled for a vote in next March's primary elections.

The Justice Department made clear it expects to weigh in on the plan to move up the vote on Proposition 54. Minority groups complain the compressed timetable for pre-election decisions may violate voting rights, and the Justice Department appeared willing to listen.

"To enable us to meet our responsibility to enforce the Voting Rights Act, please inform us of whether the state of California intended to submit these changes in its submission of August 4 or whether it will make a subsequent submission," the Justice letter said.

In an unrelated court case in Los Angeles, another federal judge Monday said he may rule by Wednesday on a challenge of the recall election initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU is challenging the use of punch-card machines in six California counties. It claims the election should not be held before March because the use of punch cards and the potential for errors could discriminate against minority voters. Justice Department officials said they have not been involved in that case.

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