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Forget Davis, Recall Californians

William Li

Aside from my attempts to run for California governor this summer, I passed the usual three months in Los Angeles with my family. In the end, I guess I just wasn’t willing to part with $3,500 of my hard-earned summer income; and the sun-washed beaches and throbbing nightlife proved too tempting for me to take time to file the mundane paperwork. I was well on my way, though, to collecting the necessary 65 signatures on my nomination paper. Maybe next time, when the weather gets to the heads of Californians again, when another millionaire offers “Dollar per Signature,” then I just might join the circus.

The special recall election of current California governor Gray Davis, scheduled for Oct. 7 of this year, provides much needed comic relief for Californians, who suffered through a budget deadlock this summer lasting 33 days, who pay the nation’s highest utility bills but must still endure rolling blackouts, and who are now experiencing tax increases of every imaginable kind to make up for a $35 billion budget deficit. The 135 candidates running to replace Davis represent well the diverse, liberal, and trend-setting culture that makes up California. Among the hopefuls there is the famous: Ahnold the Terminator, and the infamous: Larry Flynt, self-proclaimed free speech activist and proud publisher of triple X-rated Hustler magazine. We have the creative: a model handing out thongs as part of her campaign and the thoughtful: a porn star who wants to make lap dances tax deductible. And in the spirit of entrepreneurship, there are two candidates whose explicit and single campaign platform is publicity for their beer.

The political mayhem in California, which began this summer with a petition to recall Davis, and which will likely continue many months after the recall election, has provided the rest of the country, and possibly even the world, many good, hard laughs. For some of us, it is a sobering look at the pitfalls of a political system overrun by initiatives and recalls.

In the early 1900s, an amendment to California’s state constitution allowed for controversial matters to be voted on in general elections, provided the matter received a threshold number of signatures from voters first. Since then, California has decided many key issues on election ballots, including taxes, bilingual education, medical marijuana, and immigration. The rhetoric behind this practice claims that the reign of power has been restored to the people’s hands. In reality, however, the practice has allowed special interest groups and selfish elites, those who possess the skills and hold the resources to place a proposition on the ballot, to overrun California politics. The driving force behind the petition to recall California Governor Gray Davis was not the state’s dismal financial condition, which was equally bad nine months ago when he was reelected, but one million dollars offered by a Republican congressman. The money went to professional petition signature-gathering companies, who collected in total 1.4 million signatures, nearly twice the 800,000 required, at the price of nearly a dollar per signature.

A further problem in this kind of direct democracy is that voters are constantly subject to the tyranny of the majority. California’s special recall election will come in two parts. First, voters will decide whether the governor should be recalled. Second, they will choose a candidate listed on the ballot to replace him, in the event he is recalled. If a majority is attained for the recall, then the candidate with the most votes in the second portion of the ballot will become the new governor. The recall fails if a majority cannot be attained in the first part, and Davis retains his seat. With 135 names on the ballot, this means, mathematically, that so long as 50 percent plus one voters vote yes on the recall, California’s next governor could take office with under 1% of the popular vote. This obviously extreme and unlikely scenario illustrates the dangers of the majority. Even before weighing the merits of the recall, as that would be a separate argument running many pages long, we see clearly the troubles involved with individual empowerment in the form of initiatives and recalls, at least at the level Californians have been permitted to run with the idea.

Since their institution, propositions have had a long history of corruption and run-ins with the Constitution, resulting in the reversal of many of their outcomes by the Supreme Court. This recall election is on track to set its own precedent. Our founding fathers, the framers of our Constitution, knew that the masses were simply too fickle, too ignorant and too preoccupied for politics. A political system that required their direct participation would fall apart. Instead, they opted for citizens to participate directly in the election of their representatives, who would be held accountable to his or her constituents. This type of representative democracy, because of the limited size of the decision-making body, and the skills and knowledge that each member possesses, allow for debate, negotiations and compromise amidst conflicting views and agendas. On the other hand, such compromise is impossible to come by in a direct democracy where the passions and ideologies of the masses clash for an almost certain less than optimal result.

The California public have been grossly dissatisfied with the problems in their state for sometime now. Led by an opportunist who focused on the inadequacies of Gray Davis, the public expectedly made the governor a scapegoat for all their troubles. In their frustrations, 1.4 million of them signed a petition for a recall election, without level-headedly considering the $35 million cost of the election, which is not budgeted and will most likely come out of already thinning allocations for social benefits and education. Most of the signers probably also failed to consider the impossibly short amount of time counties, some of which still use the nightmarish punch-card system, will have to prepare for such an important election, and the months it could take them after the election to count ballots that have 135 names printed on multiple pages.

So now, after some in the public have come to these realizations, there are talks of an initiative to recall recall elections, and maybe sometime down the road, we’ll see an initiative to ban initiatives.