SAN FRANCISCO - The Justice Department signed off yesterday on the Oct. 7 election to recall Gov. Gray Davis, in response to warnings from a federal judge in San Jose who questioned whether the voting rights of minorities would be upheld.
In a separate challenge to the recall date, a federal judge in Los Angeles said yesterday that he would rule by midweek on an effort to postpone the election because some counties will use old punch-card voting machines.
And Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign said the actor would discuss his economic policies tomorrow. Schwarzenegger also spoke by telephone yesterday with a panel of board members of the California Teachers Association, which invited six major candidates for interviews in Sacramento. The teachers union opposes the recall but has not decided whether to endorse a replacement candidate.
The election, just 50 days away, is forcing some counties to make a number of moneysaving changes that until yesterday lacked approval from the Justice Department. The legal dispute focused on Monterey County, which plans to cut costs by reducing its usual 190 polling places to 86 and hiring fewer Spanish-speaking poll workers.
'Not a problem'
Such changes must be cleared by the Justice Department in places like Monterey and three other California counties, which have a history of low voter participation, particularly among minorities. The other counties subject to the requirement are Merced, Kings and Yuba.
"This is not a problem," Jorge Martinez, a Justice Department spokesman, said last night.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel in San Jose ordered Monterey County not to send absentee ballots overseas as he considers postponing the election. It was not immediately clear how the Justice Department decision yesterday would affect Fogel's order.
In the Los Angeles case, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California says voters in six counties would still be using the error-prone punch-card ballots if the recall were staged Oct. 7.
The suit seeks a delay until the next regular election in March, when touch-screen or written ballots will be in place as part of separate litigation arising from the Bush-Gore voting debacle in Florida in 2000.
Doug Woods of the state attorney general's office, representing the secretary of state, argued that the ACLU was merely speculating about what might happen Oct. 7 in terms of error rates or other problems with the punch-card machines.
Woods said the speculation does not outweigh the public interest in having the election go forward.
The election date has been challenged repeatedly in court with little success. Candidates have continued to campaign, although Schwarzenegger has largely kept out of public view since announcing his candidacy almost two weeks ago. He has been criticized for not offering specific policy positions.
He will meet tomorrow with his Economic Recovery Council co-chaired by billionaire investor Warren Buffett and former Secretary of State George Shultz, said Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's spokesman.
The same day, the Republican actor is set to begin airing ads for the Oct. 7 election, television station officials said. No candidate has aired TV ads so far in the campaign to recall Davis, a Democrat.
Two television stations in the San Francisco Bay area confirmed that the actor, a Republican, planned to run ads during the week.
Schwarzenegger is one of 135 candidates who have qualified as possible replacements for Davis if he is recalled on the ballot.
Davis, whose approval ratings continue to fall, is the first California governor to face a recall election.
Davis had hoped to keep Democrats focused exclusively on opposition of the recall ballot and ignoring the second question facing voters Oct. 7, which is who would replace him.
Yesterday, rifts grew among Democrats, some of whom want to encourage voters to say no to the recall but vote for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamente if that strategy fails.
The influential Latino Legislative Caucus - which includes 15 members of the state Assembly and nine state senators - voted unanimously against recall but in support of Bustamante, the state's highest-ranking Hispanic official and the foremost Democrat in the race.
"If the recall does pass, we feel strongly that Cruz is the individual on the ballot who will represent our interests and the interests of all Californians," said Assemblywoman Jenny Oropeza.
Hispanics make up about a third of the state's 35 million residents and 14 percent of voters.
Voter anger has been building since the state's 2000-2001 energy crisis. Since then, Californians have witnessed the decline of the state's technology sector and a record $38 billion budget deficit, which triggered a vehicle tax increase, forced college fees to rise as much as 30 percent and has threatened state employees with layoffs and pay cuts.