Printer Friendly Page California Fiasco - Setting Democracy Back ~ #27

California Fiasco
Setting Democracy Back a Century? ~ #27

By Alan F. Kay, PhD
2003, (fair use with attribution and copy to authors)
Sep. 30, 2003

In 1911, the people of California, infuriated by kleptocratic state government, supported a law enabling recall petitions that could kick a sitting governor out of office unless he obtained over 50% approval in a statewide election, where names of other candidates who filed to replace the sitting governor would be on the ballot. If the sitting governor got over 50% approval, he remained governor for the rest of his term. If he did not, then whichever candidate had the most votes would promptly become governor.

No California governor has faced a recall petition until this year, when Gov. Gray Davis is voted up or down on Oct. 7. On the same ballot are about 135 candidates to replace him. Public opinion polls make it very clear that Davis will get not 50% approval, but more likely, 40-45%, and he will be replaced. Polls also show that none of the leading replacement candidates will get more than about 28% of the vote and, barring major changes in support in the hectic last week of campaigning, almost certainly fewer favorable votes than Davis.

This anomaly has made a farce of the voting procedure and created a fiasco for California, which now has been set up to become the poster child for election stupidity — replacing Florida's three-year secure hold on that position. The anomaly could easily have been avoided, if the pro-democracy movement in California in 1911 had structured the recall process to automatically put the sitting governor's name on the replacement portion of the ballot. The old-timers did not anticipate this problem. A little contemplation suggests that it might be even better if the automatic replacement of the sitting governor was limited to the case when more than one other candidate's name was on the ballot.

We might still imagine that this small improvement could be implemented as an amendment to the recall, making the voice of the people heard more sensibly and dispel the embarrassment of the current fiasco. But, unfortunately, professional politicians always prefer that the people's democracy be less intrusive on officials' prerogatives, and they will have an excellent chance of success pushing in the opposite direction for eliminating the recall altogether.

Because the democracy advocates in 1911 made a small error, their good work will probably be thrown out in 2003 or 2004. We might now well have to wait for a new century before the people get the democratic power they could likely have had in the first place, if they had thought through the details of the recall. It would have been quite easy to do.

Five bright, knowledgeable people with a range of different life experiences, but not including more than two politicians/officials, could have sat in a quiet room together for about four hours, examining all the possible weaknesses of the recall law, to come up with the necessary little fix, that would have been a shoe-in -- provided their recommendation withstood the negative reactions to be expected among those leading the adoption effort.

It is endemic that in the moment when there is power enough to make a significant political change, there is rarely enough time or stomach for a bit of deliberation to determine what the change should be to make the people's voice more sensible and less foolish.

It is still possible in the final campaign week for California to escape the democracy-destroying disgrace and ignominy, if Davis' support drops and/or some candidate's support rises to be greater than Davis'. The fewest point changes that would accomplish this occurs if all of Davis' support goes to one candidate. For Bustamente or Schwarzenegger, based on the best current polling data, the required switch would be 7 or 8 points, for McClintock, 14 points, and for any of the others about 20 points.

The outcome accomplishing this turn-around would inevitably not be a simple switch from Davis to a single candidate, but at least some points flowing into several candidates. The real requirement for turn-around would involve greater point numbers, perhaps double the preceding estimates. Still, the most likely outcome seems a blow to California's reputation.

All of this speculation feels hypothetical and obscure even to me, but by Oct. 8 the world will know the exact vote counts favoring Davis and all the candidates. After Oct. 8, I promise to come back and add a sentence or two to this column, not change a word of what you see here, and in all probability confirm the prediction that is made possible only by accurate high-quality election polling. To demonstrate the value of good polling, the polling critic has here gone out on a limb. I think it's a strong limb.



>>> 2.5  The Polling Critic

Table of Contents

Return to Top