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Challenger for California first voted at age of 46, critics reveal

The last time California chose a new governor, a famous film star and former Austrian bodybuilder stunned the world by turning up on late-night television to announce he was putting himself up for election.

This time, a year before polling day, the contest has already spawned its first media circus: a bizarre scandal over the voting record of a celebrity businesswoman hoping to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Meg Whitman, the billionaire former CEO of eBay, was until recently a strong favourite to secure the Republican nomination for the job once held by Ronald Reagan.

Then journalists found that, while claiming to be a principled conservative and lifelong devotee of such touchstone causes as banning gay marriage and cutting taxes, Ms Whitman had not actually voted until she was 46.

She had only joined the electoral roll in 2002, and hadn't registered as a Republican until 2007. Worse still, she had lied about that record in a speech to a Republican convention earlier this year, claiming to have begun voting in California in 1998. Even after registering as a voter, 53-year-old Ms Whitman, a graduate of Harvard Business School who last month gave $250,000 to the Republican party's "voter registration campaign", only cast a ballot in five of the last 18 elections.

Her critics charge that Ms Whitman, who is spending $100m (£63m) of her personal fortune on her campaign, is a political lightweight attempting to "buy" the governorship in order to satisfy a personal ambition. Ms Whitman herself admitted: "I didn't vote as often as I should... I'm sorry about that and there's no excuse."

Her chief opponent for the Republican nomination, insurance magnate Steve Poizner, has called for her to be disqualified from seeking high office. "Whitman didn't skip some votes, as she claimed," he said. "She skipped every one – for 28 years."