California governor launches lawsuit to delay 'unfair and hasty' recall election

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The Independent US

California's embattled governor, Gray Davis, sought to put off his date with destiny yesterday as his lawyers petitioned the Supreme Court to delay the extraordinary "recall" election set for October.

The poll, they argued, was being mounted so hastily that it risked disenfranchising voters and creating a mess similar to the presidential election fiasco in Florida in 2000.

The governor's legal appeal was not unexpected, coming just six days before the deadline for candidates to declare themselves for the highly unconventional race. But it was not entirely hopeless, either - several legal experts suggested yesterday that Mr Davis's arguments might indeed have some merit, making a postponement until next March a distinct possibility.

A recall is a process in which voters can remove a public official from office before his or her term expires. In Mr Davis's case, his Republican opponents gathered the signatures of more than 1.6 million Californians, almost double the 897,158 signatures required, to trigger the recall vote. This is the first time the required number of signatures has been gathered in the state.

Under the rules established by California's 1913 constitution - never before tested - voters will be asked two questions. The first will be a straight yes or no on Mr Davis's recall. The second will be an invitation to pick a successor in a single-round popularity contest between the declared candidates.

In theory, Mr Davis could win 49 per cent of the vote on the first question and still lose his job. His successor might then walk into the governor's mansion with just 15 or 20 per cent of the vote on the second question. The lawsuit argues that this is manifestly unfair.

There are also questions about the speed with which the election is being put together. The number of polling stations will be sharply reduced from normal elections, raising concerns about some people, especially in poorer areas, being unable to vote.

The punch-card system, which so plagued the vote-counters in Florida, is also an issue: California is introducing a new computerised system to do away with the hanging chads and associated nightmares but it won't be ready before the presidential primaries scheduled for next March.

The lawsuit is just one extra uncertainty in a race already fraught with unanswered questions. Although the number of fringe candidacies risks running into the hundreds - itself a logistical nightmare - no major candidate has yet come forward because they are waiting for the last possible moment for strategic reasons. For the Republicans, the leading candidate is expected to be Richard Riordan, a former mayor of Los Angeles who tried and failed to unseat Mr Davis in last year's conventional governor's election.

On the Democrat side, several influential politicians have been begging Dianne Feinstein, California's senior Senator, to throw her hat into the ring. She is hanging back, however, out of loyalty to Mr Davis and out of disgust at the recall process itself.