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Recall Bid Could Launch Another National Trend

Observers differ over whether other states will follow California's lead yet again or respond with a backlash against such ballot movements.

August 12, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Twenty-five years ago, California voters started a nationwide tax revolt by approving Proposition 13, which limited property tax increases. Within five years, nearly half the states had similarly straitjacketed the tax-raising options of their politicians.

Now, some think the recall election targeting Gov. Gray Davis could spark a similar nationwide revolt against politicians, a "throw the bums out" mentality kindled by the desperate fiscal condition of most states and by three decades of post-Watergate cynicism about public officials.

"I do believe you'll see other recall efforts," said M. Dane Waters, founder and president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group in Leesburg, Va. "Before the recall drive in California, I had one call every six months. In the last two months, I've had calls from all over the country asking whether they can recall their elected officials in city halls and state legislatures."

Recalls of governors and other state officials are less likely, experts said, because the threshold for getting on the ballot is more difficult than for local officials or for general ballot initiatives.

Of the 18 states that allow statewide recalls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, most require a large percentage of the electorate to petition for a recall -- Kansas requires 40% of voters compared to California's 12% -- and six states require specific grounds for recall, such as incompetence, neglect of duties or a criminal conviction.

Virginia is not listed as one of the 18 states because a successful recall petition there leads not to an election but to a recall trial.

Still, California has so often served as a bellwether for other states -- in bilingual education, medical marijuana and term limits -- that it is difficult to rule out the possibility of a national recall trend.

Efforts are already underway to recall the mayor of Portland, Ore., Vera Katz, a three-term Democratic incumbent who has announced that she would not run for reelection next year. And there is a fledging effort to recall Republican Gov. Judy Martz in Montana, where only 10% of the electorate can force a vote.

"It's certainly possible that conservative activists will seize on this in other states, but I would think whether they will or not will depend a lot on how events in California play out," said Richard Ellis, a political scientist at Willamette University in Oregon, the state with the most statewide initiatives on the ballot over the last century, according to the Initiative & Referendum Institute.

Others counter that Davis' predicament is unlikely to be replicated elsewhere.

"The current conditions in California are fairly unique," said Jennie Drage Bowser, a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The governor is not particularly popular. There's a fiscal crisis and an energy crisis. It created a perfect storm for Gov. Davis. I don't see any sign of it spreading."

The public spotlight on California's recall process may produce not imitation but aversion, experts said. Some good-government groups hope that the circus atmosphere in California produces a backlash against the ease of getting special-interest initiatives and grudge-match recalls on the ballot.

"The ballot measure has been romanticized by the public and the press. There's an aura of populism that is unmerited," said Patty Wentz, communications director for the Voter Education Project, a watchdog group that monitors fraudulent signature-gathering in Oregon and Washington.

More often, Wentz said, special interests, not popular will, motivate a topic onto the ballot. Frustrated voters, she said, would rather throw bombs than follow the difficult, compromise-making legislative process. And fraudulent, freelance petition-gatherers are like hired guns that will use any tactic to make money.

She cited the successful prosecution of two petition-gatherers in Oregon who employed a "bait and switch" technique. They drafted a false petition to lower the gas tax.

Once voters had signed that, they urged them to sign a clipboard full of other petitions or forged their signatures on the remaining petitions. Then they sold them to organizers of the initiatives.

"Our group exists to point out that the initiative system is just like any other area of politics -- it needs to be held to the same level of scrutiny," Wentz said. "We can't give it a pass just because it's 'by and for the people.' "

Legislators in several states are attempting to reform the ballot initiative process to make it more difficult for millionaires with a cause to impose their will on the political system. In Washington state, for instance, Jim McDermott, a Democratic congressman, has proposed that each ballot initiative come with a price tag -- an assessment of the financial impact of each measure.

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