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Now That It's Finally Over, Let's Revamp the Recall

The process has defects that should be fixed before the 'next time.'

October 29, 2003|Mark Ridley-Thomas and Erwin Chemerinsky | Mark Ridley-Thomas is a member of the California Assembly; Erwin Chemerinsky is a professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California. They worked together to draft a constitutional amendment reforming the recall process.

It's time to overhaul the recall process. The 90-year-old system -- never used against a California governor before this year -- is deeply flawed and needs to be fixed in a sensible, fair and nonpartisan manner.

Our objective is not to eliminate the ability of voters to oust and replace government officials. Recall elections are valuable because they allow people to bring about change when they believe that their government is failing. Rather, our goal is to identify sensible reforms that Democrats and Republicans alike -- including both those who supported and those who opposed this year's recall -- can endorse in order to make the process work more effectively and democratically.

In watching the process as it unfolded over the last few months, we identified three key issues that warrant remedy.

First, it is far too easy to qualify a recall for the ballot.

Few realized until this year's recall was actually underway that it takes the signatures of only 12% of the electorate -- as measured by the last statewide election -- to get a recall on the ballot.

This meant that only about 900,000 signatures were required to put the recall of Gov. Gray Davis before the voters. Gathering that number of signatures is remarkably easy, especially if there's someone out there willing to spend $1 million to get it done and if signature gatherers can be hired at $1.50 per signature to do the legwork.

We believe there should be an increase in the number of signatures required to trigger a recall. We would raise it to 12% of the state's registered voters -- as opposed to 12% of the number who voted in the last election -- which would still allow a recall when there is a truly unpopular governor but would prevent such actions from becoming an ongoing feature of the California political landscape.

A second problem, as we learned during the race, is that there are numerous ambiguities in the existing law. Former California Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin noted, for instance, that the California Constitution was unclear as to whether the lieutenant governor succeeded the governor when there was a recall or whether a separate election was to be held to choose a successor, as was done this month.

Also, the Constitution is unclear as to whether the official being recalled (i.e., Davis) can be listed on the successor ballot, as well as whether a voter who does not vote on the recall question should be entitled to vote for a successor. Nor is the Constitution explicit as to whether other initiatives should be allowed on the ballot during the recall process (as Propositions 53 and 54 ultimately were).

These questions must be answered before the recall provision is again used.

We believe, among other things, that the chief justice of the California Supreme Court should be responsible for setting the date for the recall election and that other initiatives should not be allowed on a recall ballot.

But most important, we believe that in the event of a recall, there should be no race for a successor. Rather, the reasonable approach is to have the lieutenant governor succeed the governor, much the way the vice president succeeds an impeached and convicted president. We believe this would dramatically depoliticize the recall process.

That proposal would also solve the third problem we identified: that the process of choosing a successor under the current law is a mess.

California law is unclear about what qualifications are required for a person to run on the successor ballot. The secretary of state decided to follow the procedures for qualifying for a primary ballot: 65 signatures and $3,500. That led to a field of 135 candidates.

It was good for laughs on "The Tonight Show," but the large field held a potential danger: Whichever candidate received the most votes, no matter how small the total, could be elected as a successor. Although it didn't happen, there was a chance of a governor being elected with only 20% or 30% of the vote. If the lieutenant governor were to succeed the governor in the event of a recall, it would solve this problem.

The California Legislature should take action to amend the state Constitution as soon as possible. We have drafted a proposal, introduced by Assemblyman Ridley-Thomas as Assembly Constitutional Amendment 20, that would do so.

We know that everyone is exhausted from the events of the last few months, and it is tempting to pretend that this was a unique political earthquake never to be repeated and to just move on. But we owe it to the future of California to learn from what we have experienced and to create a better recall process.

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