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Should Recall Be So Simple, with Gordon Lloyd (San Francisco Chronicle) June 18, 2003

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays, Op/Eds.
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If life initiates art, then the campaign to recall Gov. Gray David is starting to resemble this summer’s hit film, “2 Fast 2 Furious.” But that isn’t art, you say; it’s crazy drivers racing overpowered cars on public highways. Exactly.

The recall effort has gone from zero to 60 in only seconds. A month ago, no one gave a recall much of a chance. Now it is not a question of whether there will be a recall election, but when. Supporters say they have more than two-thirds of the signatures required to put the measure on the ballot, and recent polls show the governor losing his office 51-43 percent among likely voters.

Amid such high-octane politics, dare we hold up a yellow caution flag? Yes, recall appears to be legally permissible and, suddenly, also politically feasible. But isn’t there another important question here? Is this use of recall historically and constitutionally appropriate?

In the first 175 years of the republic, we impeached only one U.S. president, Andrew Johnson. In the past 30 years, we have, in effect, impeached two: Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

In the nearly 100 years since the California Constitution enabled the recall of public officials, no governor has been taken to a recall vote, and now we seem prepared to give the boot to a governor who was re-elected only six months ago.

Whether you agree with the decision to impeach Andrew Johnson, the gravity of the situation then made it understandable. The country was in crisis: Lincoln had been assassinated and there were concerns that Johnson would undo the hard-won benefits of the Civil War. Waiting until the next election — the ordinary way of holding elected officials accountable — did not seem sufficient to protect the republic. Impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors” is an extraordinary tool and one reserved for rare use.

The California Constitution does not use the federal impeachment standard for recall. It simply provides that “all power is inherent in the people” and that “recall is the power of electors to remove an elective officer.” There is no language in the state Constitution about the appropriate basis for recall. History teaches us that Gov. Hiram Johnson and the Progressives who enacted the recall provision were concerned about checking powerful special interests, especially railroads, which might corrupt the political process. Presumably recall was to be used when the representative system became corrupt and tyrannical, not simply disagreeable.

One would think the recall process itself would also set a high standard for the use of such an extraordinary tool. Because of low voter turnouts, however, the law requires only 900,000 signatures (12 percent of those who voted in the last election) out of 22 million Californians of voting age to prompt an election. The ballot itself will not only ask whether the governor should be recalled, but will have a second question about who should replace him. Again the bar is low to be a candidate — 10,000 signatures of registered voters, or a $3,500 filing fee and signatures of 65 members of their party — and the candidate with the most votes wins. If there are any names on the ballot, the next governor could be elected with as little as, say, 10 percent of the vote. Talk about a mandate to govern!

Does our greater willingness to impeach or recall mean officeholders are much worse? Or does it reflect voter frustration and a greater ability to mobilize the money and signatures to use extraordinary tools? Is all this recalling and impeaching unleashing a dangerous precedent? And is all this recalling and impeaching really improving the fundamentals of representative government? Is it like kids on the playground demanding a “do-over”?

If asked to sign a recall petition, do not consider it simply as a political decision. It is also a matter of constitutional prudence. If you believe Gov. Davis’ conduct in office is of such danger to the state that an extraordinary tool should be used to stop him, you should sign. If your concerns do not reach that relatively high bar, you should wait to express your view in the next election.

This op/ed appeared on Page A-25.

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