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Lawsuit Filed Challenging Effort to Recall California Governor - 2003-07-16

A recall election against California governor Gray Davis seems all but certain after organizers of the recall drive submitted 1.6 million signatures demanding that the measure be put on the ballot. However, the governor's supporters are challenging the recall effort in court.

Most Californians are unhappy with the state's $38-billlion budget deficit, and much of their anger is directed at Governor Davis. Recent polls show that barely one in five Californians approves of his job performance.

The governor's supporters say the low approval rating is understandable, given the state's overwhelming fiscal problems. And they say a lack of popularity is no reason to invoke California's recall provision, just nine months after the governor was reelected. Tuesday, Davis supporters fired the latest volley in the recall battle, asking a Los Angeles judge to set aside thousands of recall petitions which they contend were gathered illegally.

Lawyer Paul Kiesel, who represents the group Taxpayers Against The Governor's Recall, says many petition circulators were not California residents, some were convicted felons, and a number engaged in illegal tactics, including leaving petitions unattended so they were unable to verify who signed them.

"This suit contends that the proponents of this recall hired these bounty hunters to gather and fraudulently verify recall petitions in order to promote their conservative agenda and stick California taxpayers with a $30 million to $50 million tax bill for their special election," he said.

Petition-drives to place measures on the California ballot were intended to give voters a direct voice in the state's political process. Ballot measures have grown out of grass-roots movements to cut taxes or upgrade local schools. Today, however, special interest groups often finance ballot measures using paid professionals to gather signatures.

Critics say that's what happened this time when a wealthy Republican congressman, Darrell Issa, donated $1.5 million to the recall drive in his effort to replace Mr. Davis as governor. Mr. Issa was one of the first to announce that he wants the job.

Election officials generally invalidate as many as one-third of petition signatures, eliminating duplicates and rejecting names not found on the California voter's list. Recall supporters need 900,000 valid signatures to qualify the recall for the ballot.

Even if they meet the goal, the timing of the election is critical. The lawsuit could possibly slow the certification process, delaying the election until March of next year. The recall measure would then be on the ballot with the party primaries, when Democrats will turn out in force to select their candidate for the 2004 presidential election. In the process, many will probably vote to retain the Democratic governor.

Lawyers for the anti-recall group say their lawsuit is not a delaying tactic, only an effort to ensure the integrity of the petition-gathering process.

"I have no doubt that there are many legitimate signatures and I have no doubt that there are many illegitimate signatures," said Mr. Kiesel. "And that's why what we're saying here is, we're not trying to rush the process, we're not trying to slow the process down, but we want to make sure that we have an opportunity to take a breath, look at these petitions and make sure that the fraudulent ones are voided."

A spokesman for the anti-Davis group Rescue California says it is common in the state to pay petition circulators, and he calls the lawsuit "frivolous."