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Making a Bad Recall Worse

September 16, 2003

The California recall election gained another helping of cinematic absurdity Monday, as a three-judge federal court panel delayed the Oct. 7 vote. By worrying disproportionately about the possibility of punch-card ballot problems, the court came up with a decision that, if it holds, ensures that California's politics and economy will remain in an intolerable limbo for six more months.

Less drastic remedies -- for example, ordering added precautions and poll workers -- could have mitigated the potential ballot-counting problems that plagued Florida's punch-card machines in the 2000 presidential election. This editorial page agrees with the earlier ruling by U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson, who said Aug. 20 in Los Angeles that the short recall campaign was required under the California Constitution, and that "delaying the election for half a year ... undoubtedly works against the public interest implicit in a recall election."

We have strongly opposed, and continue to oppose, this recall. It is an abuse of the voter initiative process when a well-financed political rival can, in effect, pay for an election replay. The replay itself is undemocratic, allowing a winner-take-all battle among challengers that could elect one of them with a fraction of the support that the duly elected governor still holds. If it succeeds, it is likely to join the arsenal of ordinary political weapons, increasing the state's ungovernability. Nevertheless, something more than statistical hand-wringing about chads should be required before throwing out an election for which absentee voting has already begun.

This latest round of the recall battle is another sequel to the corrosive political thriller that won't go away, a real-life Revenge of the Ideologues. This time it's called California Recall. Plot points vary, but they all have in common the rotten whiff of partisanship run amok. Nothing matters except to win. It doesn't matter if there is no sense of fair play; it doesn't matter if it becomes nearly impossible to govern -- as long as you can show You Are Right. And They Are Wrong.

The political drive for retribution started before the presidential election of 2000, but the events of that year upped the ante. The U.S. Supreme Court after the disputed presidential election said that a lack of uniform standards among Florida's counties created the possibility that ballots in certain parts of the state were more likely to be counted than in others, violating the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause. That decision by the Republican-appointed majority benefited George W. Bush and his supporters.

In filing its lawsuit to stop the Oct. 7 recall, the American Civil Liberties Union turned the tables, using the same equal protection argument in asking the court to delay the recall vote. The decision by the Democrat-appointed panel benefited Gov. Gray Davis and his supporters.

Score one for your side. Or their side. But the business of the people remains undone and unattended.

State courts, up to the state Supreme Court, upheld the Oct. 7 election. The U.S. Supreme Court should bow to those courts and overturn the federal appeals court's ruling. Let the state take proper and fair voting precautions and get on with it. This endless political one-upmanship really amounts to political murder-suicide. In the end, no one wins, except for the ideologues keeping score in their increasingly isolated corners.

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