In California, where the earth shakes and the economy whipsaws between boom and bust, voters have long held a firm grip on one thing they could control: their political system.
Over the past 25 years, starting with Proposition 13, Californians have asserted -- or tried to assert -- control over how much money they send to Sacramento, how lawmakers spend it, how long those politicians stay in office, even how they run their campaigns.
In that light, the effort to boot an unpopular governor three years before the next scheduled vote -- and less than a year after he was grudgingly given a second term -- is simply the logical, if utmost, extension of California's penchant for governing via the ballot box, the fullest flowering of its vox pop democracy.
"It says if you're angry enough, why wait for the next election?" said Larry Gerston, a San Jose State political science professor.
Indeed, the recall is part of a new form of politics that is gaining currency across the country. Where elections once were confined to campaigns that ended on election day, today they spill beyond those parameters. It started with the Florida legal battle over the disputed 2000 presidential race and continued with efforts to redraw political lines in Colorado and Texas, in defiance of the once-a-decade norm.
"It's a 50-50 country," said Walter Dean Burnham, a University of Texas political scientist who has written extensively on elections and party politics. "If you don't have a huge margin, you try to pad it any way you can."
There is a key difference, however. Those efforts were pushed by politicians. The recall has been forced on the political establishment by the people, true to California's long tradition of populist action.
That practice dates to nearly a century ago, when Gov. Hiram Johnson and the Progressive movement that brought him to power enshrined a slate of constitutional amendments that established the initiative, the referendum and the recall, , giving citizens a check on their leaders.
In the years since, California voters have increasingly reached for those tools to prod Sacramento to action. Voters have approved measures to add kindergartens to public schools; to regulate boxing, bull-riding and the use of spurs; to allow daylight savings time and to require conservation, among many others.
Some measures, meanwhile, have been fiercely debated but ultimately rejected. Famously, sponsors introduced the "ham and eggs" initiative, which would have given residents over age 50 a weekly check to tide them over. Proposed during the depths of the Depression, voters rejected the measures in 1938 and again the following year in the face of derisive counter-campaigns.
In modern times, it was Proposition 13, the 1978 property-tax-cutting measure, that established California as a bellwether of anti-government unruliness. Passage of that initiative, over the fierce opposition of the state political establishment, presaged similar measures across the country and helped fuel the national rise of Ronald Reagan.
It also speeded the pace of initiative activity in California and elsewhere. In recent years, voters have tackled one issue after another through the ballot box, setting term limits for elected officials, attempting to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants and banning state affirmative action programs. Other measures, including a hotly debated proposal to allow vouchers for school-age children, were rejected.
In part, California's attachment to the initiative process reflects its user-friendly nature. To place a recall on the ballot, for instance, California requires signatures of just 12% of the voters from the last election. That is a lower threshold than any state but Montana, encouraging grass-roots activism.
But the flourishing plebiscite process has also made for a multimillion-dollar signature-gathering industry, raising concerns that public policy can be dictated by the highest bidder.
"Bettors on the Left Coast tell me that with enough money, a million signatures could be collected in initiative-happy California to indict a ham sandwich (on whole wheat toast, of course, with alfalfa sprouts)," the New York Times' William Safire wrote a few weeks back.
Q. Whitfield Ayres, a Republican strategist in Georgia, offered a similarly jaundiced view in an interview Thursday. "It's difficult for an outsider to believe that someone as unpopular as Gray Davis was actually reelected as governor," he said. "And now it's difficult to believe that a guy who was so recently reelected is facing another reelection. It truly looks chaotic."
With the recall now headed to the ballot, some wonder whether it could spawn the same sort of backlash elsewhere.
"There's an underlying message much deeper than this recall, a real unhappiness with the whole political structure," said Tony Quinn, an independent campaign analyst in Sacramento.