Recall heard 'round the country?
With signatures to spare, California strides into political history - and havoc.
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"This election will make California worse off no matter what," says Bruce Cain, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. "To protect Davis, Democrats will have to spend millions and then go to liberal interest groups.... If a Republican wins, suddenly that party will be blamed for all of California's problems and the embarrassment of having to raise taxes or cut programs."Skip to next paragraph
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Depending on when the secretary of state validates the signatures, a fall or spring election will be scheduled. With a Democratic presidential primary already set for March, a solid Democratic turnout then could give Davis a critical advantage in the spring - one which might be lacking next fall.
As the recall now seems likely, one big question is whether or not a grass-roots revolution is truly afoot. Despite widespread voter wrath over the electricity crisis and the budgetary hole, many national observers - including prominent conservatives - say the recall could never have happened without the support of millionaire businessman Rep. Darrell Issa, who bankrolled the effort with an ease which, according to some, undermines public confidence.
"Any system that allows the financial resource of a single individual to require a statewide vote is likely to be viewed as somewhat illegitimate," says Floyd Feeney, an election expert at the University of California, Davis. "Until this fundamental problem is solved, debate about the desirability of the recall procedure or whether their need to be changes in the threshold seem futile."
And beyond the flap over bankrolling, there's a deeper philosophical fight over whether California's recall standard is far too low, and its climate too warm to new measures. "A million signatures could be collected in initiative-happy California to indict a ham sandwich," quipped conservative columnist William Safire in an oft-quoted column.
Requirements for new candidates are also being criticized: Aspirants need only $3,500 and 65 signatures to land on the ballot.
"Let's face it: Whoever designed this recall system did a poor job," says Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia. "It's insane to have that low a percentage and then allow anyone else to throw their hat in the ring with virtually no signatures and very little money." So far, though, the only declared major-party candidate is Representative Issa. Leading Democrats have promised to stay out of the race in a show of support for Davis.
Beyond California, say Sabato and others, a recall election sets a terrible precedent, devaluing every vote. "It undermines the fact that when voters are choosing their representatives, they have to take it seriously," says Sabato.
But many here insist that California's system of direct democracy - which puts dozens of citizen's initiatives directly to voters each year, skirting legislators - makes the state great.
"California's reforms were developed in direct response to the machine-driven party boss politics that dominate East Coast and Midwest politics," says Schnur. "We have here a system that eliminates the party bosses and party machines that have made such a mess in other parts of the country. If East Coasters think that's better than recalling their officials, that is their prerogative. Most Californians disagree."
Given the recall's contested legitimacy, the vote could register a referendum on the process itself.
"It's entirely possible that by the time fall comes around, the voters will ... say, 'This is not what a recall should do,'" says Thomas Cronin, president of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash.
California's recall law was passed under Republican Gov. Hiram Johnson in 1911 as part of the Progressive movement then sweeping many Western states. No California governor has yet been recalled, nor has any other state's governor met that fate since North Dakota's was recalled in 1921. In 1988, Arizona Gov. Evan Mecham was scheduled for a recall vote - but before it could happen, the legislature impeached him. A recall aimed at Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura in 1999 was stopped when a judge ruled that the reasons were inadequate. California has no such judicial discretion.
States and signatures required for recall, as a percentage of votes in preceding election:
New Jersey 25
North Dakota 25