Court delays recall, upholds voting rights

LOS ANGELES – Ultra-right Republican plans to seize control of this state ran into a roadblock when an appeals court Sept. 15 ordered postponement of California’s recall election. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that punch card ballots used in six counties, including Los Angeles, would deny voters the equal right to have their votes counted, in violation of the “equal protection” clause of the U.S. Constitution.

An enraged Ted Costa, head of Rescue California, the main committee seeking to recall Gov. Gray Davis, announced that his group will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the ruling.

“This is a victory for democracy and for California,” said Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of California branches of the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, and the Southwest Voters Project. “The message is clear,” Rosenbaum said. “We must not sacrifice political equality in favor of political expediency.”

Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California AFL-CIO, said, “Everyone deserves to have their vote counted. There are serious defects in the voting system that will lead to disenfranchisement of voters, so we support the 9th Circuit’s decision.” In the 2000 presidential election, Pulaski added, “the Supreme Court violated the right to vote, and they owe us on this one. But because we can’t count on the Supreme Court to do the right thing, our campaign against the recall is going forward. Full steam ahead.”

Even if reversed, the ruling by Judges Harry Pregerson, Sidney R. Thomas, and Richard Paez has presented in stark terms the threat to democracy posed by the attempt to remove Davis, who was re-elected last November with 3.5 million votes. Many here have branded the recall a “bloodless coup,” comparable to George W. Bush’s theft of the 2000 presidential election in Florida.

The court’s 66-page ruling warned that the votes of 40,000 or more voters are certain to be thrown out because of dimples or hanging chads on their punch card ballots. The judges pointed out that the system of punch card balloting is “so flawed that the secretary of state has officially deemed it unacceptable, and banned its use in all future elections.” All of the antiquated punch card machines are to be replaced by next March.

The judges also warned that a quarter of the state’s polling places will not be operational because election officials have insufficient time and staff to get them ready by Oct. 7. Furthermore, men and women in the U.S. armed forces will be disenfranchised, they charged, “because they did not expect to be overseas for this length of time” and therefore did not apply for absentee ballots.

Avoiding an election “that promises to dilute the votes of any particular community – let alone communities with disproportionately high concentrations of minority voters – firmly promotes the public interest in a fair election,” the judges wrote. “The public interest strongly favors holding the recall election during the general election in March 2004 to avoid any equal protection violation.”

The judges argued that the anti-recall plaintiffs “equal protection claims mirrors the one recently analyzed by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore in which the justices ruled that the state ‘may not by arbitrary and disparate treatment value one person’s vote over another.’” It was seen as a shrewd line of argument that will be difficult for the Supreme Court to rebut without eating their own words.

The labor-led anti-recall effort is surging here in this battleground city which is crucial to defeating the recall. This reporter visited the the headquarters of the L.A. County Federation of Labor where volunteers from a dozen unions were phone-banking, in both English and Spanish, in a room with 50 computer phone stations. Freddy Harris, a member of Service Employees Local 99 told this reporter, “People tell me, ‘Where is the democracy when 1.6 million people sign a recall petition and it throws out an election where eight million people voted?’”

At a special Democratic Party convention Sept. 13, Gov. Davis drew strong applause as he shook hands with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante while the 600 delegates chanted, “Recall No! Bustamante Si.” The next day, the Rev. Cecil Murray welcomed Davis and former President Bill Clinton to the First AME Church in South Central Los Angeles. The crowd overflowed the sanctuary and packed the basement to watch on a big screen as Murray urged the crowd to turn out a huge vote against the recall.

Robin Harris, a Los Angeles schoolteacher, stood in the church basement. “This is bigger than Gray Davis,” she told the World. “It’s big money, big business, removing from office somebody the people have voted for.”

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com