American partici-patory democracy is headed for one of its most compelling and controversial tests in decades, courtesy of California.
Under a century-old voter reform law, the first successful recall election of any modern US governor appears on target for this fall or next spring. With 1.6 million voter signatures turned in Monday to the secretary of state - roughly twice what's required to put Gov. Gray Davis to a special vote - Californians will likely get their chance to toss out the silver-coifed Demo-crat with the lowest approval rating of any governor in state history.
If he is removed, the implications for California and the nation could be profound. While some Republicans here believe a new governor would benefit the state, many independent analysts say the move could start a spiral of political instability.
For one thing, a replacement could win with a lean fraction of the vote - say, 15 percent - raising questions of whether the individual has a mandate to govern. And the move could spur retribution recalls, with campaigns to oust a Republican governor.
Nationwide, the drive could well embolden similar recall efforts. Seventeen other states allow politicians to be removed from office and, as the term-limits movement showed, anger about legislators runs deep.
Yet many experts caution that the recall of Davis - successful or failed - may not spread inexorably in the mode of Prop 13. In most of the states that permit recalls, activists must gather far more signatures to get them on the ballot than in California: Only one, Montana, requires fewer. Moreover, signature drives and initiative campaigns are deeply ingrained in politics here, making the process natural in a way that it might not be anywhere else.
Whatever happens, the episode will be one of America's most-watched populist maneuvers ever, and California's large population and political importance fuel the fascination.
"If a Republican wins in California, you can bet that Republicans in other states might feel like trying the same tactic," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "But someone has to ask: If other copycat attempts got rolling, would Demo-crats then jump in and take aim at Republican governors just because they could?"
Governors have been impeached by legislatures - though rarely - and lesser officials have been recalled by voters themselves. But only 4 of 117 attempts have succeeded in California in nearly a century, and never with a governor, making this "unheard of in the modern era of American politics," according to Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. It is, he says, "an irresistible case study in American democracy."
Irresistible, at least, compared with the governor himself: Davis has long been unpopular, and a recent state poll showed that because of increasing public concern over the state's $38 billion deficit - the largest in US history - most voters support his removal. They've been angry, too, about Davis's handling of last year's electricity crisis.
"The biggest complaints about Davis are not merely ideological," says Dan Schnur, former counsel to Gov. Pete Wilson. "The biggest criticisms are that he has not been willing to expend political capital to take on the most urgent problems. He doesn't want to ruffle feathers or make anyone mad."
But whatever Davis's failures and fate, many observers fear California's collateral damage. By the rules of the recall statute, voters give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down for Davis and vote for a replacement, who needs only a plurality to win - meaning the victor could gain office with only a sliver of support.
That winner would inherit Davis's problems and budgetary woes - and face entrenched legislators and political parties straining to cooperate after a long, costly, controversial battle.
"I'd bet serious money that the enthusiasm for such drives will cool when another candidate gets in and has the same budgetary and other problems," says Pitney. "Whoever takes over is going to inherit a very ugly mess ... and is likely to become very unpopular very quickly. It's very possible that you will have a new governor with more voters against him than Davis got in the last election." Davis beat Republican candidate Bill Simon last fall with 51 percent of the vote. Now, experts say, a candidate could win with less than a third of that block.
The election will also be expensive. Besides the estimated $35-$50 million from state coffers, both parties will spend on their candidates, potentially leaving them more beholden to interest groups once the victor takes the helm.
"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."
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.
The pros and cons of pro tem
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