Recall: Travesty of democracy or benign safety valve?

Despite its absurdity, the election has already energized many and taught a few civic lessons.

Lovers of representative democracy and tidy elections have made clear their disdain for the unprecedented recall effort against California Gov. Gray Davis (D). A sampling of the arguments:

• The Oct. 7 recall election is disruptive and will cost California and its 58 counties up to $66 million, as the state grapples with a record $38 billion budget deficit.

• The huge field of replacement candidates - certified on Wednesday at 135 people - means that if Mr. Davis is recalled, the new governor might be elected by a small plurality.

• The recall is a case of phony populism and of big money hijacking the political system. Davis's historically low approval ratings did not put the recall on the ballot; it was one wealthy man's willingness to spend what it took to gather the signatures.

• A successful recall of Davis - who was reelected to a second four-year term just last November, leading him to believe credibly that he had four years to steer California out of its budget crisis - could inhibit future governors from making unpopular choices.

Still, when all is said and done, there could be a civic silver lining in California's recall, say analysts. If nothing else, they say, the recall has energized California voters like nothing else in recent decades. Turnout for California governors races has declined from 79 percent of registered voters turning out to elect Ronald Reagan in 1966 to 45 percent turnout last November.

Experts say turnout for recall elections is typically higher than it is for regular general elections at the same level of government. "There's a lot of emotion involved, and emotions lead people to the polls," says M. Dane Waters, president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute in Leesburg, Va.

In addition, Mr. Waters says, a controversial measure on the ballot called the Racial Privacy Initiative - which would bar the state from classifying people by race, ethnicity, color, or national origin - will spur voting, particularly among California's minority communities. Turnout could hit 70 or 80 percent, he says.

HIGH interest in the California recall election - now consumed by the entry of Arnold Schwarzenegger into the race - could lead to public discussion of the issues. Political observers are crowing that, for once, California TV news is covering politics. That coverage is for now celebrity-obsessed, but in the weeks ahead, it's possible Mr. Schwarzenegger will succumb to demands that he reveal proposals for dealing with the budget crisis, rather than coast on fame.

So far, TV is covering the race as a "spectacle and a freak show," says Martin Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California. Still, he notes, there have been a number of stories on TV whose point is to "watch Arnold duck the question." Pressure on him could snowball, says Mr. Kaplan.

In a way, observers note, the California recall represents an American version of the parliamentary system: a leader loses the confidence of the people and must stand for election again. In the 18 states that have statewide recall provisions, a recall is part of the democratic system of checks and balances. It provides a safety valve for a state that would otherwise be stuck with a deeply unpopular leader for the rest of his or her term.

"This isn't happening just because a millionaire put a lot of money in," says Rob Richie, head of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md. "There's a climate that created the popularity for the recall."

Polls show upwards of 60 percent of Californians support the recall measure. Even if big money put the recall on the ballot, "it can't hold a gun to people's heads and force them to vote a certain way," says Mr. Richie.

When all is said and done, if Californians decide the recall was bad for the state, they can change the rules of engagement - for example, requiring the replacement to receive more than a small plurality of the vote. If Davis is recalled and replaced by a Republican, some Democrats have already promised a recall effort against the next governor.

But that may be easier said than done. After this current recall circus, Californians may not welcome another upheaval so soon.

The real test for Californians will come after the recall is over, says Richard Harwood, who runs an institute focused on civic engagement. The recall "demonstrates just how much we have become consumers in politics, in the sense that we want instant gratification," says Mr. Harwood. "The impatience is incredible." The potential silver lining, he adds, is that it might reawaken people. "The question is, can the governor, whoever that will be, follow through on the potential."

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