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Are California Recall Elections Anti-Democratic?

by Laura Dolson


Goodness knows that by now quite a lot has been written about recall elections in California. Some say that they are the very pinnacle of democracy, and others retort that they are exactly the opposite. I have had my opinions from the beginning of the gubernatorial recall effort, but the current move to recall 80% of our school board has given even more impetus to my thinking on this issue. We now have before us two recall attempts - one that may radically change the governing of one of the world's largest economies, and one which may have an impact on our relatively small educational community. It's interesting to use them as a jumping-off point to look at the whole California recall system. (Read more California recalls)

To begin with, obviously, free elections are at the very foundation of democracy. A lot of people held their breaths in 1797 when John Adams was about to be inaugurated as president. Would there truly be a peaceful transfer of power from one man to another? When Thomas Jefferson took over as the third President, it was perhaps even more momentous, as it meant a different political party would be in control. The general willingness to accept the results of elections is a hallmark of our democracy.

The reasons for this are practical as well as philosophical. We can't have a functional government if it is perpetually in flux. Unpopular decisions must sometimes be made, particular in times of economic hardship. Almost every state, almost every California county, and the vast majority of California school districts are attempting to balance out deficits, and unpopular decisions MUST be made. Funding cuts do not generally make for happy citizens! But if our leaders have to fear upheaval and overthrow with every decision, this multiplies the difficulties. Not only does it create more financial problems (due to the cost of the elections), but it inhibits choices which may be unpopular, but are more fiscally sound.

The fact that recall elections are paid for not by the challengers, but by the constituents of the area, presents another issue - recall elections can act similarly to so-called "harassment lawsuits" - sort of an "I'm going to make you pay" mentality. Rather than rationally presenting viable alternatives, it encourages fomenting negative feelings and acting out anger by attempting to punish the people in charge, presenting them with new budget constraints and distractions from their legitimate work. It also allows people with enough money to put on a big ad campaign, or an angry group using emotionally-laden half-truths, to cause a disruption in the system rather than work constructively within it.

Worse, anyone who wants to cause this type of fuss doesn't even need legitimate grounds for doing so. Unlike some other states where grounds must be clear to all - incompetence, violation of oath of office, malfeasance, or other legitimate reasons for an elected official being removed from office, recall proceedings here can be undertaken "just because" - just become someone else wants power, just because someone has an ax to grind, just because someone doesn't want to go through the usual tedious process of primary elections and long campaigns.

Perhaps one of the worst problems with the California system is that a minority of voters often make the decision as to who will replace the recalled official. Take the California gubernatorial race as an example. According to a poll taken this week, if the recall election were today, 55% of the population would vote for it. If this were to be the case, 45% of the voters would be in effect voting for Gray Davis - and yet, the nearest challenger is running in only the 30-35% range. So Davis loses, even though he got the most votes, while it's conceivable that someone getting only 20% or less of the votes could win. With such a low level of support, the person taking the governor's chair has two strikes against him or her from the beginning.

A recall election may also be the only time we decide to have an election to get rid of someone without having a clue who the replacement might be. By signing petitions, people are essentially "voting" to hold an expensive election with the idea that almost anyone would be better. In our local case, two of the four candidates being targeted for recall ran unopposed last November. No one else in their areas was interested in running just seven months before the recall effort was started, and I have heard only one name proposed for any of the four areas should a recall election take place. This is an excellent example of this problem with the system.

All in all, I would call the California recall system a subversion of our democratic principles. If the citizens of California can't have faith that the officials they have elected will actually get to govern, elections become a meaningless, empty exercise. I'm voting no on October 7th, and I'm not signing any recall petitions in California - ever - unless a true violation of the oath of office has been clearly demonstrated.

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