Two court decisions on Friday, combined with the high percentage of valid signatures that officials are recording on petitions to recall Gov. Gray Davis, increased the likelihood that Davis’ future could come to a vote earlier than once thought possible, with an election as soon as Sept. 30.
Legal efforts to delay a vote on the recall suffered a setback, while a separate court challenge filed to speed up the process advanced. A Sacramento court ordered officials to conduct a running count of the valid signatures on petitions calling for Davis’ ouster and a Los Angeles judge rejected an attempt to slow the process, even temporarily.
Even before the court decisions, Secretary of State of Kevin Shelley had discussed in a conference call with county election officials on Thursday the possibility of an early election, according to others who participated in the call.
Barring a successful legal challenge, “we’re all looking at Sept. 30 or Oct. 7" for the special election, said Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Conny B. McCormack, one of those who was in on the call.
Alameda County Registrar of Voters Brad Clark said “both of those dates were mentioned” during the conference call with Shelley. “We talked about the dates.”
McCormack said that, in light of Friday’s court action, she was doubling the number of staff members counting and verifying signatures on recall petitions. “We’re fully committed to being finished by Wednesday,” she said.
More than 80% of the signatures checked so far in Los Angeles County are valid, McCormack said. An estimated 329,700 signatures were submitted in the state’s most populous county.
In Orange County, Steve Rodermund, interim registrar of voters, said 106,730 of the raw total of 233,949 signatures had been certified so far.
The timing of an election would be determined by a number of requirements spelled out in the state Constitution and statutes. Once county elections officials submit to Shelley enough valid signatures to qualify the issue for the ballot, an election must be held within 60 to 80 days, unless an already scheduled statewide election would occur within 180 days anyway.
California’s next scheduled statewide election is in March, so if the recall is not certified until early September, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who has the job of picking the election date, could consolidate the vote with that election.
But recall proponents say they already have submitted more than 1.6 million signatures and want a quick count now to confirm that. If enough signatures -- 897,158 -- are validated and approved by Shelley before Aug. 15, then an election would have to be held before November, when many California cities and counties have local elections scheduled, because that would be more than 80 days away.
In that event, the election would have to be held in late September or early October. The vote could not be held on Oct. 14 because that is the day after Columbus Day, and state law does not allow elections to be held the day after a holiday.
“If and when a special election were to be held is totally dependent upon when counties provide us with the number of signatures required to be certified,” a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office said.
The other issue that could influence the timing of an election is the spate of lawsuits filed in relation to the recall. Proponents have filed two actions, both in Sacramento, while opponents of the effort have filed a suit of their own in Los Angeles.
On Friday, the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento ordered Shelley to instruct local election officials to continue to examine and verify the validity of signatures on recall petitions and submit them to the secretary of state.
The order had been sought by the Recall Gray Davis Committee to clarify a directive from Shelley to local election officials. Committee leaders praised the ruling and said it would help force an early vote on Davis’ tenure.
“I am relieved that the will of the voters who signed recall petitions will be upheld and not undercut by the political games of Gray Davis’ allies,” said Howard Kaloogian, chairman of the Recall Gray Davis Committee.
In Los Angeles, Superior Court Judge Carl J. West denied the request of the governor’s forces to bar Shelley from certifying the petitions until the court determines whether petition circulators had broken state election laws.
“I don’t see the urgency in this, so I’m not going to grant it,” West said. It was the second time this week that West had refused to intervene.
On Wednesday, he had set a hearing for Aug. 8 on the underlying lawsuit alleging fraud in the signature-gathering process. The suit claims that at least two circulators, both convicted felons, live outside of California in violation of state law. But by the time the hearing is held next month, the signatures may already have been certified, forcing the recall election.
Attorney Paul R. Kiesel said outside court that he would probably ask the appellate court Monday to overturn West’s ruling. In their petition for a temporary restraining order, Kiesel and attorney Raymond P. Boucher said the deficit-ridden state should not be forced to spend more than $38 million on a special election whose validity they question.
Judge West again Friday expressed concern about the legal strategy chosen by Davis supporters. He pointed out that circulators found to have broken the law can be prosecuted and jailed.
Shelley already has said that his office’s policy is to accept signatures on petitions if they are valid, even if people circulating the petition were not state residents, as required by law.
After Friday’s hearing, attorney Charles H. Bell Jr., representing recall proponent Ted Costa, called the lawsuit “totally meritless.”