Special primary election put on hold

The already compressed time frame for the special primary election to fill the Central Coast’s state Senate seat has been put on hold for at least a week.

A federal judge granted a request Wednesday to temporarily stop Monterey County officials from preparing for the special elections to fill Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado’s former 15th District seat, at least until a three-judge panel hears testimony in a lawsuit over the contest.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of several Latino voters in Monterey County, argues that the June 22 primary election date does not allow time for the federal review required under the Voting Rights Act, opening the door for disenfranchisement of minority voters. Halting proceedings in Monterey County, one of five within the Senate district’s boundaries, would essentially put the entire election on hold. San Luis Obispo County is represented by the seat, with the 15th’s boundaries ranging from Santa Maria to San Jose.

Among those campaigning to replace Maldonado are Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, and John Laird, a Democrat and former Assemblyman from Santa Cruz.

Laird has sent a letter to Blakeslee asking that they join in asking Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to consolidate the election with the Nov. 2 general election. Laird said Blakeslee has not responded, but Blakeslee told The Tribune last week that he had asked the governor’s staff to “inquire about the possibility of changing the date,” and been rebuffed.

Schwarzenegger’s staff told Blakeslee they didn’t want the seat to remain vacant that long, and “made it clear that they felt it is inappropriate for any declared candidate in the affected election to seek to influence the election timing.”

The lawsuit is something of a last resort for Democrats, who had wanted Schwarzenegger to consolidate the special general election, now scheduled for Aug. 17, with the November general election. Democrats, who are bankrolling the suit, believed higher turnout in November would give them a better shot at picking up the seat.

Schwarzenegger spokes­man Aaron McLear said that the administration doesn’t see a one-week delay in preparations making much of a difference.

“We expect the Justice Department to grant preclearance and for the election to be held on June 22 as planned,” he said.

But Wednesday’s ruling, which tells county officials to hold off on putting vote-by-mail ballots in the mail, notes that the county has already missed the deadline for sending out ballots to overseas voters.

The ruling also notes that the state has contended “that even a temporary interruption of election preparations would be the ‘death knell’ for the special elections even if the Department of Justice ultimately were to grant preclearance.”

The hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

Monterey County election officials are continuing to prepare for the special primary election despite the court order to put preparations on hold.

“I’m still putting time and energy in with this election and putting money in this election because we have to be ready ... for it to happen at the drop of a hat,” said Monterey County Registrar Linda Tulett.

Tribune Staff Writer Bob Cuddy contributed to this report.