Commentary

The Silver Lining in California’s Recall Cloud

By Patrick Basham
September 18, 2003

Highbrow reaction to the campaign recall of California Gov. Gray Davis is neither surprising nor original. A century ago when Los Angeles voters first introduced recall in California in a municipal referendum, critics called the practice radical and revolutionary. Some predicted that voters exercising the right to turn out a particularly objectionable elected official would be a defilement of representative democracy. Those elites’ successors echo that same point today.

The critics claim the Davis recall is a reckless adventure that sets a dangerous precedent for American democracy. Columnist Paul Krugman says, “the Golden State is degenerating into a banana republic.” Former California congressman Leon Panetta believes the recall is “direct democracy run amok.” Such sentiment reflects misunderstanding about both California’s recall provision and the rationale behind recall itself.

Critics are correct about one thing: Davis will probably be removed from office on October 7 without evidence of malfeasance. The state’s constitution, however, does not specify that elected officials can only be recalled for illegal acts. By law, proponents must simply state a reason for recall — and that reason could presumably be simply that the official is doing a poor job. Therefore, the recall provision is not limited to the demonstrably corrupt or the impeachable. California’s recall provision makes it possible to remove politicians deemed dishonest, incapable, incompetent, unrepresentative, unresponsive, unsatisfactory, or wasteful.

Why are so many political sins punishable by recall? Political scientist Thomas Cronin, an authority on direct democracy, reminds us that “Candidates are elected for a wide variety of reasons, including ones that bear little relation to their ability to perform their public duties effectively. The premise of the recall is that if people can be elected for non-job-related reasons, they can also be removed for a variety of reasons.”

Because California often generates waves of cultural and political change that sweep across the nation, critics fear that the recall vote will stimulate more calls for politicians’ scalps. According to political scientist Ross Baker, “It would be ruinous for other states if they followed California’s example” of exercising the recall. But those fearful of the populist uprising should relax. Advocates never viewed recalls as a substitute for free elections. Historically, its boosters have viewed the recall as a last resort.

Further, recalls have made little headway nationally. Only 18 states have recall provisions, and most of those states require recall advocates to satisfy especially onerous petition requirements before the recall can happen. Unlike California, one-third of the recall states require specific grounds for a recall, such as a criminal conviction or demonstrated neglect of one’s duties.

Consequently, a recall election is a rare event. Most recall campaigns never reach the ballot stage. Of those that do, most are handily defeated. Nationwide, the only recalled governor, to date, is Republican Lynn Frazier of North Dakota, back in 1921. In California, there were 31 failed gubernatorial recall attempts before this year. Altogether, 117 recall attempts have been launched against other California state officials, but only four have succeeded.

There’s no denying that the recall is a relatively crude instrument that could be used abusively. However, evidence from California and elsewhere suggests that voters are able to see through most unsubstantiated, partisan recall campaigns. Interestingly, the recall has also proven ideologically neutral. Political scientist Charles M. Price’s research found that liberal groups attempt to recall conservative politicians about as often as conservative groups go after liberals.

Conservative recall critics should appreciate that recall is not just another pro-government, Progressive-era invention. The American experience with recall dates to the Articles of Confederation (1781-89) that provided for the recall and replacement of delegates appointed by the states. At the behest of Virginia’s Patrick Henry, among others, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and a number of subsequent ratifying state conventions strongly considered including recall in the text of the new Constitution.

Importantly, the recall provides a safety valve for intense grassroots sentiment. Californians agree that this instrument of direct democracy rests upon a simple, Jeffersonian premise: Occasional popular protest, properly vented, can improve the quality of government.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.