The attempted recall of California Gov. Gray Davis has the political establishment sputtering anew about the awfulness of direct democracy. At the least, argues California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamente, the recall is an “expensive perversion” of the recall process. At worst, it supposedly poses a threat to freedom and well-ordered government.
But whatever the outcome of the Davis recall campaign — it’s perhaps telling that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator himself, is waffling on the idea of taking a crack at the governorship — there’s no reason to throw out the baby with the bath water. The recall is a venerable part of the political tradition in 34 states, 17 of whom allow recall of statewide elected officials. Polls have consistently shown that voters view these devices as useful safety valves for political frustration.
There seems little question that the rights of initiative, referendum and recall are receiving a workout. G. Alan Tarr, director of the Center for State Constitutional Studies at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J., notes in an article on the Web site of the Washington-based Initiative and Referendum Institute that from 1975 to 2000 the number of initiatives on state ballots soared to 929 from 279 in the prior quarter-century. Detroit News columnist George Weeks recently counted no fewer than 175 recall efforts in the state of Michigan in the past two years alone.
Critics often blame what they see as a surfeit of direct democracy on the professional signature-gatherers, armed with computers and backed by individuals with deep pockets, who surfaced in the wake of California’s famous Proposition 13 in 1978. But Professor Tarr argues that increased use of initiative and recall provisions is part of a more fundamental trend — “a new, or, I would argue, renewed willingness to circumvent established institutions of government that are perceived as unresponsive to popular will.”
Little wonder, then, that entrenched political interests have tried to gut Progressive Era measures in states from Colorado to Montana. Or that a similar effort is afoot in Michigan, where a land-use commission appointed by Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm wants to prohibit recalls except for outright “malfeasance” and bar referendums for zoning changes that don’t comport with regional master plans — in essence, to remove zoning issues from local control.
Sure, lots of silly stuff goes on state ballots. But most recalls and initiatives fail — a recent example being the crushing defeat of education vouchers in Michigan. University of Michigan political scientist Elizabeth Gerber has studied propositions favored by special interests and found that they are no more guaranteed of success than true grass-roots measures.
And sure, outsiders frequently can be found pushing their favorite agendas in referendum states, as Michigan Democratic Rep. John Dingell has accused California businessman Ward Connerly of doing in launching a petition drive to overturn racial preferences at the University of Michigan.
But why is it fine for Mr. Dingell to advocate schemes that extract large amounts of Michiganians’ income and spends it in other states, while it is wrong for Mr. Connerly to spend his own money and his exercise his free-speech rights in Michigan?
True, the Framers considered and rejected the idea of a recall at the federal level. But many of the states, being much smaller, had a long history of direct democracy, including referendums on whether to call periodic constitutional conventions, even before the Progressives came along.
Perhaps California’s recall provision could use some tweaking. It requires the signatures of only 12 percent of the voters in the prior election to put a recall on the ballot, compared to 25 percent in most states. But there are built-in penalties for abuses, as Republicans may discover if they are seen as simply trying to grab power via the recall process. Our progressive reactionaries need not worry so much.
Tom Bray is a columnist for the Detroit News.