Recall Effort in California Kicking Into High Gear

Legislatures from Maine to Montana may see vote used more often

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN recall elections were tacked onto California's Constitution four generations ago, they were conceived as a way for voters to oust corrupt or ineffective politicians.

Today, however, another motive seems to be creeping in - partisan politics.

Analysts say two recall efforts under way in California and the one defeated on Tuesday have as much to do with power plays by parties as with lawmakers' performance.

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These moves, and the motives behind them, prompt the question: Is the recall election - a means of removing elected officials through a second election - a good thing or not?

Proponents are convinced it is still an important safety valve for democracy. But critics say it is increasingly being abused for personal and partisan gain.

''Everyone is torn over what's right for democracy,'' says R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Elections Center, a Houston-based, nonprofit group. ''Should a small group of voters be able to redress their grievances, and at what cost to the rest of us?

''I don't know what the appropriate balance is,'' he says. ''But I think we're all going to have to take a look at it pretty soon.''

The debate has become particularly heated in California, where recall elections are on the rise. Until three months ago, a California state official had not been sent home by a recall election in 81 years.

But then California Assemblyman Paul Horcher was successfully ousted in May after he dropped his Republican party status and became a political independent.

Tuesday's recall of Assemblyman Mike Machado (D) of Stockton, Calif was also backed by the Republican Party. And the state GOP is behind the recall of Assembly Speaker Doris Allen, an Orange County Republican. Also seizing on the tactic, Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition plan to launch their recall of Gov. Pete Wilson (R) this October.

The new rush of recalls in the Assembly, California's lower house, can be partly the result of the success of Mr. Horcher's dismissal, political observers say.

''It worked, therefore, it's being used again,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, Calif.

But there are also other forces at work fueling the trend here and in other states.

Analysts cite:

rThe introduction of term limits in 1992 in California - permitting legislators to serve a maximum of eight years - has dismantled the hierarchy of the Senate and Assembly. A Speaker or president is no longer in office long enough to hold influence over other lawmakers.

So the discipline that was once meted out by the legislative leader, now comes from outside influences - the political parties and special-interest groups, Ms. Jeffe explains.

* Politicians in recent years have achieved a greater sophistication in targeting voters. An easing of the absentee-ballot requirements has made it possible to control who votes in a recall election, typically not well attended by the general populace.

* Recalls are more popular in a legislative body that is evenly split, because the shifting of one seat can make or break a party's majority.

Mr. Machado handily defeated a recall on Tuesday, but had the effort succeeded, it would have boosted the GOP's majority in the California Assembly to 41-to-38.

That and the supposed political aims of a Republican said to be vying for the Senate seat that includes Machado's district made it worth the Republicans' while to spend $118,000 on the recall campaign. Machado raised $845,000, largely from Democratic Assembly members.

Officially, the Republican effort is driven by anger over Machado's backing of former Speaker Willie Brown (D), who arranged for Doris Allen (R) to succeed him as Speaker with little Republican backing. That anger is also at the root of the state GOP's recall of Ms. Allen. And if Allen is ousted, Jeffe says, recall efforts will certainly grow in popularity.

If the use of the recall becomes common, some experts warn, the voters will lose out on two counts. First, their lawmakers will constantly be campaigning and thus become ineffective policymakers. And second, each recall effort can cost the public up to $300,000 for running the election. Recalls typically cost each side close to $1 million, which spills over to the public as it spawns greater fund-raising efforts from parties and organizations.

Sixteen states have recalls codified into law. New Jersey was the latest addition, enacting an amendment to their state Constitution in May. Twenty states mandate some form of term limits for state office.

''The recall would have to be proved to be ineffective'' for it to disappear, says Larry Lynch, co-publisher of Political Pulse, a Sacramento-based newsletter that follows the legislature. ''Wherever there are evenly split electorates and term limits ... I could see that the recall could become a tool in other states,'' Mr. Lynch says.

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