American partici-patory democracy is headed for one of its most
compelling and controversial tests in decades, courtesy of
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
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
"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 straining to
cooperate after a long, costly, controversial battle. …