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."
Clamor, cost, consequence
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 …