State election officials fear that as many as one-third of California's most recently registered voters might be ineligible to vote because registration forms were not filled out in strict conformity with election laws.
How many voters statewide might be affected is the subject of informal estimates, but in Los Angeles County officials say as many as 33% of the voters registered since Feb. 20 could be rejected because of key omissions.
In Sacramento County, the estimate was almost as high. "Based on a check of registrations we did, we will be rejecting 28% of the cards coming in here," said Registrar of Voters Ernest Hawkins.
Problems include such things as applicants failing to include their middle name or their occupation on voter registration forms.
The problem stems from an attorney general's opinion in 1984 that said that administrative regulations adopted by Secretary of State March Fong Eu in the mid-1970s were illegal. The regulations instructed local election officials to overlook such things as missing middle names, and presumed that the individual involved did not have one. The attorney general's opinion held this was an improper reading of the state Elections Code.
Eu sponsored legislation aimed at correcting the problem. But when the bill by Assemblyman Johan Klehs (D-San Leandro) ran into trouble, Eu issued a memo on Feb. 20 warning individual county registrars that they should begin rejecting voter registration affidavits if the documents were not complete.
The Klehs legislation to fix the problem ran into more problems Thursday when it was defeated in a Senate floor vote that had partisan overtones. Republicans refused to support the bill.
Senate GOP Leader James W. Nielsen of Woodland said he opposed the bill because it would write into law a series of presumptions, such as the presumption that if people did not include a middle name on their affidavit of registration, they did not have one.
"What kind of burden is that, putting down a middle name? How much trouble is it to write down a middle name? Voting is an important responsibility of citizenship. I don't think it is too much to ask to have people fill out voter registration forms properly," Nielsen said.
Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward), who carried the bill, said he believes that much of the opposition stemmed from Republican suspicion that Democrats might be trying to sneak through a bill that might give them some kind of advantage. But he said there were no underlying motives other than trying to clear up a major problem and predicted that he would get the GOP support he needs when he again takes up the bill for consideration next week.
The legislation requires support by two-thirds of the Senate because its supporters, including the California County Clerks Assn., want it to take effect immediately and apply to the June 3 primary election.
Sacramento County Registrar Hawkins said that if the legislation is not passed it could create a legal nightmare, possibly leading to challenges not only of new voters but of long-established voters.
'Could Tie Us Up'
"It's possible a losing candidate in a close election could go through the rolls and challenge everyone who did not list a middle name. I don't think they'd win in court, but they could tie us up for a long, long time," said Hawkins, chairman of the County Clerks Assn. elections committee.
A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Eu said she believes that only those potential voters who have registered since her Feb. 20 memo outlining the new, more restrictive guidelines would be affected.
Caren Daniels-Meade explained: "The memo said anything received by counties after Feb. 20 which is not complete is not a valid registration. It does not mean that someone who registered last year is going to be ruled off the rolls if they left off their middle name."
She said the reason the policy would not apply to all voters is because local election officials "were operating under administrative regulations then deemed to be in effect. Somebody could bring suit, but it's unlikely they would win in court."
Marcia Ventura, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County registrar-recorder's office, said that the 33% rejection rate was based on a sample of 7,000 registrations reviewed during the first week in March. She estimated that about 350,000 newly registered county residents could be affected if registrations are comparable to what they were in the 1984 election.
Election officials currently are attempting to deal with the situation in the best way they can. Officials in both Los Angeles and Sacramento counties, for example, say they will attempt to track down people who filled out incomplete registration forms and correct them, either by telephone or through the mail.
Handwritten notations must be made on voter registration forms specifically saying that a person does not have a middle name or initial. Hawkins said he is considering ways to allow people who cannot be reached to complete their registrations at their polling places on election day.
Officials said, however, that they hope the problem will be resolved through legislation before the election.