Cover Story

CALIFORNIA COUNTDOWN

COVER STORY: Legal challenges exhausted, the big debate over, with days to go before Oct. 7, voters in California have the last word in one of the oddest elections ever

Issue: "California's new governor," Oct. 4, 2003

When a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a temporary halt to the California gubernatorial recall election, the state's political establishment went into a tailspin. Candidates blathered. Donors balked. Lawyers briefed. But Ernie, Skip, and Clem barely noticed.

The three men, warehouse workers at the San Diego County Registrar of Voters facility, labored right through the weeklong period of uncertainty, stacking 12-foot towers of collapsible cardboard voting booths and cartons of precinct election supplies into tidy ranks that nearly filled a hangar-sized warehouse.

Good thing, too. On Tuesday, Sept. 23, a full panel of 11 judges overturned their three colleagues, putting the state's historic recall election back on track for next week, Oct. 7. Despite the ensuing scramble in Sacramento, work in the warehouse went on as usual. The next day-right on schedule-Ernie, Skip, and Clem began loading the brown-and-white supply cartons onto trucks bound for 1,307 voting precincts throughout the county.

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"The delay didn't affect us at all," Ernie said. "This is the day we were supposed to ship these anyway."

And so, after a brief, weird interlude, the brief, weird recall process at last appeared to be all but unstoppable. With an election date etched in stone, all 135 candidates geared up for a mad dash to the finish line. The race, which long had the air of a political circus, finally started looking more like a normal election: The leading candidates-even the elusive Arnold Schwarzenegger-all got together for a debate. Polls showed a tightening race. Candidates went negative. Courts investigated illegal fundraising. Republicans squabbled and Democrats screamed.

And, this being California, Jay Leno hosted 90 fringe candidates-including one dressed as a clown-to the set of his late-night talk show. Normal is a relative term, after all.

Despite the lingering sense of political comedy, there were signs that plenty of Californians grasped the underlying drama of the situation. By early in the week, even before the court ruled that the recall must go on, some 700,000 absentee ballots had already streamed into county registrars' offices. In San Diego, for instance, behind a 30-foot-high wall of chain-link fencing, a team of temporary workers screened, counted, batched, scanned, and sorted thousands of sealed ballot envelopes. All across the state, the envelopes were to be opened and counted on Oct. 1-a week before Election Day.

For those sticking close to home on Oct. 7, the deadline for new voter registrations was Sept. 22, and election officials throughout the state reported a surge of interest. San Diego County was flooded with 10,000 registrations on the day of the deadline, a single-day total that eclipsed most weekly totals since the recall election was certified on July 28.

It was that sense of urgency that seemed to weigh heavily on the court's consideration of a delay in voting. Eleven judges-considered a full bench in the sprawling, 28-judge 9th Circuit-unanimously overruled their three colleagues who had ordered the election postponed on the grounds that the punch-card ballots used throughout much of California would disenfranchise poor and minority voters. In its en banc ruling, the court said the state's multimillion-dollar investment in the election and the hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots already cast simply outweighed the theoretical, potential harm posed by the antiquated ballots.

After eight days of uncertainly, all the candidates seemed to breathe a sigh of relief; even Gray Davis, the unpopular governor who is the subject of the recall, was reconciled to reality. "It is time to move forward," said Peter Ragone, a Davis spokesman. "We want the election to be fair, inclusive, and democratic."

Added Mr. Schwarzenegger: "It is time for the legal wrangling to end. It is time for this election to go forward. It is time to let the people decide."

Despite everyone's determination to "move forward," most of the major candidates seemed to be largely running in place. Some 53 percent of Californians now say they'll vote to recall Mr. Davis. That's a slight improvement for the governor, but not enough to keep him in office. In the race to succeed him, a weekend poll showed Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante with 28 percent support, followed by Mr. Schwarzenegger at 26 percent, making the race a statistical dead heat. Those numbers had barely changed from previous polls, suggesting that neither man was branching out beyond his core supporters, while state Sen. Tom McClintock, the most conservative candidate in the race, was up 9 percentage points to 14 percent.

Mr. McClintock's late surge wasn't good enough for state Republican leaders, who grew increasingly vocal in urging him to drop out of the race for fear of splitting the party and handing the election to Mr. Bustamante. Darrell Issa, the conservative GOP congressman who personally bankrolled the recall effort, suggested on Monday that if one of the two Republican candidates didn't withdraw, he would urge his allies to vote against the recall entirely. Though he later backpedaled from that threat, days later came reports that he'd endorse Mr. Schwarzenegger.

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