California's Recall: Adoption of the "Grand Bounce" for Elected Officials

By Spivak, Joshua | California History, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

California's Recall: Adoption of the "Grand Bounce" for Elected Officials


Spivak, Joshua, California History


From the completion of the intercontinental railroad system in 1869 until 1910, political life in California was dominated by the railroad industry, and its biggest conglomerate, the Southern Pacific Railroad (popularly known as the "Espee" or "SP"), (1) which was laser-focused on maintaining its profit margin and monopoly on power. One of the leaders of the fight against the railroad, Fremont Older, described the situation in his autobiography:

"There was only one kind of politics and that was corrupt politics. It didn't matter whether a man was a Republican or a Democrat. The Southern Pacific Railroad controlled both parties, and he either had to stay out of the game altogether or play it with the railroad." (2)

Other business leaders, labor groups, and good government movements spent years clamoring for change. However, the Southern Pacific, with its massive war chest and because it dominated the primary means of shipping and travel, was able to crush all comers until the Progressive movement swept the country.

The political reforms, known collectively as the Progressive Movement, encompassed a complex and diffused set of principles, which some historians believe lacked a dearly defined focus. (3)

Generally, the Progressives attempted to clean up the moral and political health of the country. Their record, and a list of the reforms they supported, is too long to elaborate here, but in politics, they were strident opponents of big city bosses and powerful interest groups, especially business monopolies. They stressed the delegation of power to the populace, which they believed would prevent corrupt influences from maintaining their hold on power. In order to achieve this goal, the Progressives backed a series of procedural changes to the political system on the national level that included women's suffrage, the primary election, and direct election of senators. The Progressive movement also promoted a three-part state-level reform referred to as "direct legislation" or "direct democracy," which is comprised of the initiative, the referendum, and the recall.

Considered "the chief political legacy of state progressivism," (4) direct democracy has been adopted in a majority of American states. Twenty-seven states provide for the initiative or popular referendum (5) and thirty-six allow the recall of some officials. (6) The initiative, which allows voters to propose a legislative measure or a constitutional amendment by filing a petition bearing a required number of valid citizen signatures, has had the most widely felt impact among the direct democracy provisions. Since Proposition 13 rolled back property taxes after its passage in 1978, the initiative has been recognized as the major player in determining California's state budget allocation. (7) The referendum, which allows a legislature to refer a proposed or existing law or statute to the voters for their approval or rejection, also has had an impact on politics throughout the country. However the recall, which allows voters to remove an elected official before his or her term is up, has until recently been neglected. When Governor Gray Davis faced a recall in October 2003, at first many were shocked by its use. (8) But at the time of its adoption it was considered of equal importance by its proponents, and of greater danger by some of its opponents. (9)

Even with its relative lack of use, the recall has been an inherently controversial device in this country, and it has been utilized to validate different beliefs on representation in government. Its backers have argued that it has remained true to its restorative purpose of expanding democracy by focusing power into the majority's hand. These contentions have failed to dislodge the opposition view that the device is both unnecessary and potentially detrimental to responsible government. Opponents continue to echo President William Howard Taft's denunciation of the device as the "'hair trigger' form of government. …

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California's Recall: Adoption of the "Grand Bounce" for Elected Officials
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