My brilliant friend Steve Teles, who teaches politics at Brandeis only because I have so far failed to talk him into moving to UCLA, has some thoughts on the recall as an element of an electoral system. He thinks it’s a bad idea:
There are a few basic reasons to be against the recall, in principle. They
a) A recall electorate is different than a general election electorate. That
is, if we had reason to believe the same people turned out for a recall
election, then we might take the election to be a reasonable opportunity for
the “people” to reconsider a decision that was based on fraudulent
information, or subsequent malfeasance. But it isn’t the same electorate,
perhaps systematically. So different people get to overturn a decision made
by the people who turned out the first time. If it works, we’re likely to
see repeated, perhaps endemic attempts by the losers to overturn decisions
whenever they anticipate the recall electorate being more favorable to their
cause a general election electorate.
b) In general, we have fixed terms in a representative democracy because we
want to provide an opportunity for officials to have “space for
statesmanship,” a certain distance from the electorate in order to make
decisions that the people may find abhorrent in the short term, but which
they may approve of in the long term. Essentially the recall abolishes the
fixed term, thereby imposing an even more short-termist approach to
governance than we’ve got now.
c) At least the way the recall is organized now, the governor chosen in a
recall election is likely to have far less than a majority, whereas the
pressures toward two-party dominance in a general election ensures that at
least close to a majority had to approve of the winner of the governors
race. In the long term, any candidate or party who believes that they have a
solid 25-30 percent of the electorate behind them (even if the remainder
would NEVER vote for such a candidate) has a strong incentive to call for a
recall immediately upon losing a general election. Even if this incentive
effect doesn’t hold, it is desirable to have a process that will
systematically produce a governor with a small minority of the electorate
supportive of them?
d) The way the recall is organized eviscerates the role for parties in
filtering decision-making. There’s a good reason to have the election be a
two-part process, whereby voters have to express their opinions on the
narrower question of who, among the candidates who are closest to them
ideologically, they prefer (the primary) and then, from amongst the
remaining candidates who have been given the institutional support of the
party, they prefer. This also will tend to help connect voting with
governing, since parties are both electoral and governing organizations–the
candidate who wins the final election has been endorsed by the party and
thus is likely to have a built-in foundation for governing.
In making the first vote, on whether to recall or not, all these
institutional considerations should be foremost in voters’ minds. And
regardless of what happens, people need to very seriously think about
ditching the recall process before it causes even more damage to the already
pathological way that California politics is organized.
All of that makes sense to me as an argument for repealing the recall provision of the California Constitution. (And I can add an additional argument drawn from the current situation: when a recall is sparked by a fiscal crisis, as is the case now, it is likely to make the crisis harder to resolve by freezing activity for a couple of months. California may already be bankrupt by the time a new governor takes office in October.)
I can think of some counter-arguments: in particular, the recall discourages the practice of simply lying your way through the election, as Gray Davis did this time, by making insanely optimistic predictions about the budget picture. On the other hand, the recall also discourages coming clean once one has done so. For example, Schwarzenegger’s numerate supporters presumably hope that, once elected, he will toss his promises out the window and admit that taxes have to go up and education spending has to be cut, because the alternative is bankruptcy. But if he does so, it’s certain that the Democrats would mount another recall drive, which might well succeed. Still, I think on balance Steve’s arguments are convincing ones.
Here’s a proposal that would largely, I think, eliminate Steve’s valid concerns about the current process. Retain the recall, but eliminate the second-round vote on a successor. Instead, require that the Governor and Lieutenant Governor be elected as a ticket, as the President and Vice President now are, and provide that if the Governor is recalled the Lieutenant Governor succeeds, and appoints his own Lieutenant Governor, as a Vice President who becomes President appoints a replacement Vice President. That would take most of the partisan maneuvering out of the game.
All of that said, I think the arguments against the recall as an element of an electoral system, while they would have been rather strong arguments against signing the recall petition, are not as potent arguments for voting “No” on the first round. If the goal is to establish a precedent that a losing party that tries to use the recall to refight the last election loses, then the replacement of Davis by Bustamante seems to me just about as good as the retention of Davis.
I will certainly vote “No” if it looks as if Schwarzenegger is going to win the second round. That vote will be cast mostly on partisan and personal grounds, but Steve’s arguments provide an independent set of reasons for voting that way, and perhaps a set that should be convincing to those who on partisan or personal grounds would prefer Schwarzenegger to Bustamante. But if it looks as if Bustamante is going to win, I plan to vote “Yes” on the first round, because on both partisan and personal grounds I think Bustamante would be a better (or at least less bad) governor than Davis has been or will be.
To repeat what I said earlier, I think it makes sense for Bustamante and his campaign to keep saying “No on the recall, Yes on Bustamante,” but that doesn’t mean that his supporters should, or will, follow that advice in the privacy of the polling booth. In any case, I think the argument is largely moot in practical terms: absent some political earthquake, it looks as if Davis is gone, so the remaining practical question is who will replace him.
Update I guess there must have been an earthquake I missed; the latest LA Times poll shows the recall question within the margin of error. I now have to concede that the argument about how to vote on Round One is a practically significant argument.