Davis allies file lawsuit over recall

LOS ANGELES -- A group fighting the Republican-led drive to oust Democratic Gov. Gray Davis filed a lawsuit Tuesday that alleges signatures on recall petitions were gathered illegally.

Attorneys for Taxpayers Against the Governor's Recall said that recall proponents violated the law by using petition circulators who were not registered California voters and did not witness signatures being signed.

They said the alleged violations may have been widespread enough to invalidate the recall drive -- even though proponents claim to have gathered over 1.6 million signatures, nearly twice the amount needed to get the measure on the ballot.

"Based on everything we've heard and seen it could well not be a valid election," said attorney Wylie Aitken.

Recall backers insisted all signature gatherers were registered voters and gathered signatures lawfully. They called the lawsuit a frivolous attempt to "derail the Democratic process."

"One-point-six million people can't be wrong. They've spoken, they should have a chance to go to the polls," said Monica Getz, spokeswoman for Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican who has bankrolled the drive and is the only declared major-party candidate to replace Davis.

The lawsuit named Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, a Democrat, and the registrars of voters in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.

The plaintiffs are six residents seeking class-action status on behalf of California voters and taxpayers.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction stopping Shelley from taking any action on the recall, including certifying it for the ballot, until county elections officials verify that the people circulating recall petitions were registered California voters.

It also asks that elections officials in the state's three most-populous counties stop verifying signatures until they check the status of signature collectors and ensure that the collectors witnessed the signatures.

The recall has been fueled by discontent over California's energy crisis and $38 billion budget deficit, sending Davis' approval ratings to record-low levels.

Even Davis supporters concede that a recall election looks nearly inevitable. But legal battles could delay it from this fall to March, when heavy Democratic turnout for the state's presidential primary could help Davis.

Meanwhile, counties are counting and verifying signatures that they must turn in to Shelley on July 23. If Tuesday's lawsuit is to succeed, a judge would have to issue an injunction before the election was certified, said one of the pro-Davis group's attorneys, Paul Kiesel.

Relying on a 1980 finding by a predecessor, Shelley has issued instructions to counties directing them to validate signatures collected by signature gatherers who were not registered voters.

"I will continue to provide guidance based on the law, not the interests of one side or the other," Shelley said Monday.

Davis backers asked in the suit that Shelley's instructions be declared invalid.

A spokeswoman for the secretary of state declined to comment, saying her office had not yet seen the lawsuit.

The latest legal skirmish is the second in less than a week. On Thursday, a group of recall proponents sued Shelley and four counties to try to get the signature counting sped up. No action has been taken on that issue.