The California governor’s recall election has been yet another opportunity to portray California as a strange place with very strange practices.
And there are really quirky quirks in the recall that could, for example, produce a replacement governor with far less voter support than the current governor — Gavin Newsom — facing the recall. With 46 recalled challengers for Newsom’s job and only a plurality requirement to win, it is possible that a winning candidate could become governor with less than 50% of the vote.
But California’s direct democracy, which is being sabotaged by writers from within California – “elections are supposed to represent the will of the electorate, not the will of the electorate,” a Mercury News editorial said – with From the usual suspects that are out of state, it represents a vital, even if flawed, vehicle for updating America’s durable but stable democratic institutions.
Founders not keen on direct democracy
By the standards of the American Republic established in 1789, direct democracy, just like California, is a new kid on the block.
The founding principle of American government was a stable representative republic in which elected leaders would check and balance each other by their service in governing bodies with formally separate, but shared authority. In other words, the office-holders will hold their fellow office-holders accountable. This scheme is the basis of all 50 state governments today.
The Founding Fathers hated direct democracy of any kind and expressed their feelings about it. Alexander Hamilton wrote, “Nothing other than a permanent body can test the absurdity of democracy.” “His turbulent and unruly nature needs investigation.”
However, progressives in the late 1800s and early 1900s thought that direct democracy was the necessary solution to a problem the constitution did not address: what if elected leaders were neither willing nor able to hold each other accountable. were able?
In more contemporary terms, direct democracy also addresses cases in which the popular will is frustrated by the mysterious, slow, and even obstructive legislative process. Checks and balances may mean no progress.
protect people’s needs
The Progressive Movement gained great popularity in the western and south-western states that were not part of the original 13 states. It was based on a deep suspicion that representative government could not protect the needs of the people because it could not resist the power of special interests.
In California, where progressives took deep root, reformers hated the Southern Pacific Railroad, which managed to corrupt elected leaders throughout the state capitol. No matter how many elections to the state legislature or state senate may be won by good candidates, the railroads will still dominate.
For Progressives, the solution was to vest some legislative power directly in the hands of the electorate, where the railroad could not possibly reach through the control of elections and lobbying. As a result of a voter-approved constitutional amendment passed in 1911, California voters gave themselves a law—the initiative—or the power to remove a law—referendum. They were the basic pillars of direct democracy as envisioned by the progressives.
Many other states, not just those in the original progressive stomping grounds, adopted direct democracy. The initiative proved to be an activist for direct democracy, used far more often than referendums or recalls. The Voter Initiative has also managed to put Medicaid expansion on the legislative agenda in a state like Utah, whose elected officials refused to expand the program.
The recall, which vests destructive power in the hands of the electorate, has been a late addition to the progressive agenda. Its adoption was led by John Randolph Haynes, a prominent Los Angeles philanthropist, doctor, socialist, and progressive. His advocacy inspired voters in Los Angeles to create the first recall provision in the nation in the city charter of 1903. Haynes tirelessly pushed the State Progressives to include the recall in a 1911 constitutional amendment—and they did.
The California recall applies to all statewide elected officials, members of the state legislature, and judges of the appellate and supreme courts. There is a low bar for recalling elected officials statewide on the ballot: signatures from 12% of the number of people who voted in the previous election for the same office. The provision facilitates simultaneous recall and replacement elections: If voters choose to remove the incumbent, the candidate receiving a plurality of votes becomes governor.
The recall is a powerful tool for holding elected heads of state. Remember elections usually take place outside the normal election cycle, when voters are not expected to be called to participate. This has more in common with “snap elections” in parliamentary democracies than with the predictable US election cycle.
Compared to the widely used initiative, state recalls are very rare. Since 1911, only 11 California state officials have faced recall campaigns who had collected enough signatures to make a ballot. Of those, only six were actually removed from office: Sen. Marshall Black, a Republican-Progressive, was removed in 1913 on charges of embezzlement. A year later, Democrat Edwin E. Grant was fired for sponsoring a red light abatement law that was wildly unpopular in his San Francisco district. Republican Assembly members Paul Horcher and Doris Allen were recalled to the leadership of their own party in 1994 and 1995, respectively, for crossing party lines in the vote for speaker.
The most famous recall campaign came in 2003, when Democratic Governor Gray Davis, grappling with a power grid crisis, was ousted from office and replaced by actor and Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was voted Davis to stay in office. More votes were received.
Although the state has a low recall success rate, effective efforts have accelerated, driven by Republicans facing a deep electoral hole in regular elections. The final three recalls to make the ballot are aimed at Democrats: Davis in 2003, the successful recall of Democratic State Sen. Josh Newman, and the current campaign.
Maybe the California state recall is on its way to becoming a low-visibility political tool in the hunt for minority party underdogs. Of all four governors in the country who ever faced recalled elections, two were California Democrats during their party’s rise in state politics.
While the public may prefer direct democracy, it has more critics than its defenders among students of politics. But it is one of the few long-term structural reforms that has the potential to fix some of the problems of the US government system.
Voters may be able to reform direct democracy in keeping with its basic objective: activating and mobilizing a well-informed citizenry to correct the flaws of a democratic system of astonishing longevity, but a profound drive for change. with resistance.
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