Fixing the Recall Process

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: