Magazine article The New Yorker

UNCRAZY CALIFORNIA COMMENT Series: 1/6

Magazine article The New Yorker

UNCRAZY CALIFORNIA COMMENT Series: 1/6

Article excerpt

On Monday of this week, for the first time in television (and American) history, a gubernatorial inauguration is to be carried live and coast to coast on all three networks--CNN, MSNBC, and FNC. Network TV ain't what it used to be. Still, this is a notable first. Even in California, it isn't every day that so singular a figure as Arnold Schwarzenegger is solemnly invested with supreme executive power, especially under such astonishing circumstances.

The rest of the country got a lot of derisive laughs out of the California recall election. It provoked a few rueful chuckles in the Golden State, too. Viewed strictly as a process, though, it functioned remarkably well. And the transition, which many people quite reasonably expected to be bumpy and rancorous, was smooth and collegial. The involuntarily outgoing governor, Gray Davis, had every right to feel bitter at getting the boot just eleven months after being reelected. If he had gone all sullen and uncooperative, that would have been only human (a category he has always had trouble fitting into, poor guy). But he was the soul of graciousness after his defeat; and Schwarzenegger, of course, is a genial fellow. Perhaps the biggest reason for the smoothness of the transition, though, was that Schwarzenegger had won the election so convincingly that no one could quibble about the legitimacy of his right to the office.

The size and clarity of the victory came as a surprise. The most glaring flaw in the design of the recall process is the danger of a grossly undemocratic outcome. A two-part ballot--thumbs up or thumbs down on the incumbent, and then, if it's thumbs down, the awarding of the job to the first-place plurality winner among, in this case, a hundred and thirty-five replacement candidates--created the mathematical possibility of an election in which the loser outpolls the winner by better than fifty to one. "If Davis is recalled," the columnist George F. Will predicted, "he probably will be replaced by a governor who received substantially fewer votes than were cast against the recall." Many observers agreed--me, for example. (In a dispatch from California for this magazine, I confidently called that outcome "a near-certainty.") These predictions were, to put it mildly, wrong. On October 7th, Schwarzenegger got 4,203,596 votes, or 48.6 per cent of the total. This was more than the vote for retaining Davis (4,006,021, or 44.6 per cent), much more than the vote for Schwarzenegger's nearest rival, Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamente (2,723,768, or 31.5 per cent), and more, even, than the vote for Davis in the last regular election (3,469,025, or 47.4 per cent). Nor did the California recall have the undemocratic taint of the 2000 Presidential election, in which, on top of Al Gore's half-million-vote plurality over George W. Bush, left-of-center candidates outpolled right-of-center ones, fifty-one to forty-nine per cent. In California, Republicans of various stripes amassed well over sixty per cent.

Governor Davis and his supporters portrayed the recall as a cynical attempt to overturn a democratic election, likening it not only to Florida in 2000 but also to the Clinton impeachment and this year's Republican redistricting coup in Texas. The public, rightly, found these parallels unconvincing. It's one thing to overturn an election by means of a judicial ukase, a partisan parody of a trial, or an orgy of gerrymandering. It's another to overturn an election by means of another election. …

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