Gray must go

Gray Davis, our dull, secretive, shifty, fiscally irresponsible, coin-operated, lock-’em-up-forever governor, faces a recall petition engineered by one of our loony-toon right-wing Congressgeeks, Darrell Issa.

The LA Times seems to think that it would be “undemocratic” for the citizenry to reconsider the results of the 2002 election, but I can’t quite follow the editors’ reasoning: if there’s a criticism to be made of the initiative and recall provisions of state’s Progressive-era constitution, it’s that they’re excessively democratic, leaving too much power in the hands of the voters rather than their elected representatives.

But why shouldn’t the voters, with the benefit of more information, be able to vote again? Making recall petitions a normal part of the political process would certainly have some costs, but there’s no reason to think that such a development is likely; if this petition succeeds in forcing a vote, it will be the first time for a California governor.

Admittedly, the recall provision does seem to have been drafted in a fit of silliness. Here’s how it works: If 12% of the number of voters who voted for an office sign a recall petition, a new election is held, in bifurcated fashion. On the same day, voters vote on two questions: whether the incumbent is to be displaced, and who is to replace him. If a majority votes to boot the incumbent, then the person getting a plurality of the votes in the “beauty contest” part of the ballot. (The incumbent can’t run in the “beauty contest.”)

Not only does this guarantee an impossibly complicated campaign, it creates the possibility that, in a splintered field, some loser with good name recognition or a fanatic following might be elected governor with, say, a quarter of the votes. And it’s truly frightening to imagine how much of our future the Gray Ghost would sell out for campaign contributions in a recall, given how shameless he is in ordinary times.

Still, getting rid of Gray Davis seems like a worthy cause. (I was prepared to vote for Simple Simon, and would have if he’d had the good sense to remain silent and be thought a fool rather than, as he did, opening his mouth and removing all doubt.) The good news is that Phil Angelides, the state Treasurer, and Bill Lockyer, the Attorney General, who have been jockeying for position in a 2006 race, both announced that they wouldn’t be candidates in a recall election. (The Lieutenant Governor, Cruz Bustamente, is still keeping his counsel.) What I’m hoping for is that Issa and Ahhhhnold and maybe a couple of other GOPhers get into the race, and that a single Democrat (an actual Democrat this time) could pull it out. The papers are talking about DiFi, but she probably won’t do it, and there’s no particular reason to think that she’d be a good governor.

Leon Panetta, anyone?

Update My friend Steve Teles suggests that the above analysis is too shallow, treating as a single-play game what is in fact a multiple-play game:

Political entrepreneurs considering recalls in the past were faced with the fact

that experience would suggest the impossibility of the task. A successful

recall would reduce the “uncertainty cost” of a recall, as well as

suggesting organizational mechanisms by which this could be achieved. Each

time it was successfully done would reduce both of these costs–this

suggests that there is a path dependent mechanism at play in recalls once

the original threshold is passed. Which would further suggest that if you

thought the recall as a recurrent phenomenon was undesirable that you would

want to stop it at this point. The evidence for this can be found with

referenda and initiatives–the first few were hard but they increase

dramatically over time as the uncertainty cost gets eliminated and the

collective action problems start to get solved.

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: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com