Emerging lessons of the recall

As Californians head to polls, observers say the unusual ballot has energized state politics.

In the past eight weeks, Californians have been told the alphabet begins with the letter "R" - at least in Eureka.

They have been advised that the Michael Jackson running in Tuesday's election is not, in fact, the King of Pop.

And they have learned the most intimate details of Arnold Schwarzenegger's alleged sexual indiscretions, yet only the faintest outlines of what he would do as governor.

Over the arc of its accelerated lifetime, the California recall has at times confused and confounded, divided and enthralled. It has been hailed as a ballot-box revolution and a mockery of the democratic process.

Yet Tuesday, as voters head to the polls to decide whether they want to make Gray Davis the second recalled governor in United States history, the lessons from this bold and bizarre political experiment are beginning to emerge.

Some will continue to shape the election even Tuesday. Indeed, experts confess that they are at a loss to guess how severely - if at all - the last-minute allegations against Mr. Schwarzenegger might affect his once-mighty momentum. The condensed campaign period, they say, has given voters less time to learn about the candidates, and led to wild and unpredictable swings in voter preference.

More broadly, though, even the harshest critics acknowledge that the recall has brought an enthusiasm to California politics not seen in recent memory. And while any election-day crises could change the recall's legacy, they add that the tool of the recall - after 92 years of disuse - is here to stay.

"The inevitable result is that the recall becomes a weapon in the arsenal," says Tim Hodson, a political scientist at California State University, Sacramento. "You can't ever put it back in the box."

Unchartered waters

When California election officials took it out of the box this summer, it was far from clear whether the recall process - devised before World War I - would hold together or disintegrate into chaos. The recall, after all, had never been used on a statewide basis, and its first moments were a carnival of the absurd.

For one, the ballot was a mess. Voters would be asked whether they wanted to recall Davis, as well as who should replace him if he is recalled. Simple filing requirements meant that 135 candidates got onto the ballot - setting up the prospect of a candidate replacing Gov. Gray Davis with 15 percent of the vote. And an election reform - to ensure no candidate had the prime top spot on every ballot - mandated a random alphabet that begins R, Q, W, O in the first voting district and shifts one letter in each subsequent district.

"This had to be put together with gum and baling wire," says Dr. Hodson.

Questions over the complexity of the ballot - and whether voter confusion decides the election - will only be answered in coming days. The state has 39 days to certify the election. If the governor is recalled, the replacement winner would take office within 10 days of that certification - barring any legal action.

Compressed campaigns

The past eight weeks, though, have provided other answers - and essentially established a whole new campaign mode stuck on fast-forward.

Although any formal primary was cast out in favor of the kitchen-sink ballot, the survival skills needed for such a sprint to the finish naturally pared the list of major candidates. In such a short election, the advantage went to the players who had the most money - or could raise it most quickly. Each poll became a pseudo primary, thinning the field so that in the most recent Field Poll, Schwarzenegger carried 40 percent of the vote.

The brevity changed the tone of the race, as well. Although the recall was ostensibly about the state budget crisis, candidates were able to avoid specifics, instead focusing on the day-to-day velocity of the campaign. Likewise, campaigns had less time to find weak links in their opponents' persona and platform. The result has been an unusually volatile campaign, as voters' first impressions were quickly and dramatically reshaped through debates and allegations.

"To assemble a dossier on an opponent takes a lot of time," says Derry Sragow, a Democratic consultant. Believing that voters have already made up their minds, he adds that the new charges against Schwarzenegger may have come "too late to have an impact."

Excited electorate

Perhaps more than anything, though, the race's short span provided the tension and momentum necessary to keep Californians energized. To be sure, Schwarzenegger's entrance gave the race a Hollywood flair. "But I don't think it was just that," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in southern California. "This is the people's voice. There are [financial] costs to this, but the engagement of the electorate is a good thing."

On that point, Mr. Sragow would agree. But as a Democratic consultant, he also sees an inevitable reaction to the action of the recall. He says Democrats would try to recall Rep. Darrell Issa, the man who financially backed the recall signature-gathering effort, but there is no recall mechanism for recalling members of Congress. Still, he and others say political operatives now know the recall is a proven tool, and citizens might be less willing to let a foundering governor work though difficult times.

"Now, we are unwilling to live with the consequences of an election until the next election," he says. "We no longer abide by the terms of an election."

To many political analysts, it's a notion that undermines the foundations of American government. To some, though, it's simply the perpetual - and occasionally messy - evolution of democracy.

"The history of political development in this country, and in others, suggests that political systems based on popular sovereignty, like ours, become more democratic over time," says Howard Ernst, coauthor of "Dangerous Democracy? The Battle over Ballot Initiatives in America." "What the citizens have decided in California is that they have more confidence in the tools of direct democracy than the judgment of elected officials."

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