On Sept. 17, the Schwarz-enegger administration rejected California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley’s request for release of over $25 million in federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) funds in preparation for the November election.

The announcement by Schwarzenegger’s finance director, Donna Arduin, is the latest move in a struggle that began in August, when the state Finance Department held back some $34 million of unspent HAVA money over allegations that some HAVA funds had been spent on partisan programs. The funds were frozen pending an audit that state Auditor Elaine Howle said could take until after this fall’s election.

Over $15 million earmarked for poll worker training, monitoring election results and making it easier for disabled voters was later released. But Shelley has continued to press for release of the remaining funds and some additional monies — over $25 million in all — saying they were vital for the November election.

The funds that are still frozen were intended for publication of the state’s Easy Voter Guide, prepared by the League of Women Voters, the State Library and others, on which many voters depend for basic information. Also frozen, the Secretary of State’s press office said, are monies for voter education for both domestic and overseas voters, a statewide system for voters to track their provisional ballots, and modernization of voting systems used by some counties. These measures are considered especially important in working-class and minority districts where polling equipment is often poor and voter turnout low.

Arduin — like Schwarzenegger, a Republican — has worked in the past for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Shelley, a Democrat, has been a sharp critic of touch-screen voting machines, banning some types of machines and requiring voter-verified paper records or special security measures for others.

In a telephone interview earlier last week, state NAACP President Alice Huffman expressed disappointment at the governor’s withholding of the funds. “I’ve never known the process to be so politicized before,” she said. Huffman said the NAACP and other nonpartisan organizations that conduct voter education had been told proposed HAVA funds would be available as early as July. She said letters to the governor urging release of the funds, which are crucial for assuring voter rights in November, had gone unanswered.

California Democratic Party spokesman Bob Mulholland told the Sacramento News and Review that Schwarzenegger’s stance is “a perfect strategy by the Bush people to block HAVA funding for low-income neighborhoods. And Schwarzenegger, on behalf of the Republicans in the White House, is more than happy to do that.” Mullholland called the move a more genteel version of the past practice of “using 300-pound goons to block Latinos from voting in California.”

Voter rights organizations including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights were calling on supporters to urge the governor’s office to release the funds.

The author can be reached at mbechtel@pww.org.

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