POWER TO THE PEOPLE: The California Recall and Direct Democracy

Wednesday, July 30, 2003

On October 7, 2003, Californians go to the polls to vote in a historic election. They will decide whether to recall Governor Gray Davis and replace him with someone else. Davis is only the second governor in U.S. history to face a recall election. Is the California recall in the best interests of its citizens? Or is this recall election an example of direct democracy gone awry? And what long-term effects will this recall campaign have on politics at both the state and national levels?

Recorded on Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, should the recall itself be recalled?

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation.

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today, the California recall election.

This autumn, Californians will go to the polls to vote in an historic election. They'll decide whether to recall Governor Gray Davis, re-elected less than a year ago, and replace him with somebody else. Gray Davis is the first governor in the history of California, and only the second governor in the history of the United States, ever to face such a recall election. Is the recall in the best interest of Californians? Or is it, instead, an example of direct democracy run amok? What effects will the election have over the longer term on politics here in California and in the nation at large?

Joining us, three guests. Peter Schrag, a long-time observer of California politics, is a columnist for The Sacramento Bee. Robert Stern is president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies. And Thomas Cronin is the president of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and the author of Direct Democracy: The Politics of Initiative, Referendum and Recall.

Title: Power to the People

Peter Robinson: Howard Fineman and Karen Breslau writing in Newsweek magazine, ever since Prop. 13, a quarter of a century ago, quote, "California voters have been trying to place more power directly in the hands of the people. They have imposed strict term limits and rigid budgetary spending caps and have written rules on everything from the rights of crime victims to the use of state pension funds. The ironic result, however, hasn't been more democracy, but less." True? Bob?

Robert Stern: False.

Peter Robinson: False.

Robert Stern: We have a democracy in California.

Peter Robinson: Peter?

Peter Schrag: True.

Peter Robinson: Tom?

Thomas Cronin: It depends.

Peter Robinson: There we have the range. Okay, so, we have the recall, the ballot initiative and the referendum, three instruments of direct democracy that become part of the California Constitution under Republican governor, Hiram Johnson, in 1911. Johnson wants to give ordinary Californians a way of counterbalancing the mining and railroad interests that dominated the state in those days. But, in California, it's the last 30 years when this instrument really begins to take off. Between 1980 and 2000--last 20 years, excuse me--626 statewide initiatives were circulated, 123 qualified and 52 were passed, and that is more activity than in the previous seven decades. How come, Bob?

Robert Stern: Because the legislature has not responded to the will of the people. If you...

Peter Robinson: Well, why did the legislature cease responding to the will of the people, round about 1970 or '80? What changed?

Robert Stern: The main thing that changed--actually, in the early '70s, there were several initiatives on the ballot, many of them failed. In '74, there was an initiative, the Political Reform Act of '74 which I actually helped draft and passed by 70%. But, the big thing...

Peter Robinson: Yes, you've been causing trouble for a long time, now.

Robert Stern: That's right. The big change was Prop. 13 in 1978. When that passed, that opened up the floodgate.

Peter Robinson: What, institutionally--what is the change that causes this thing to take off?

Thomas Cronin: One of the things, I think, is that you've got great population growth. You've got districts, legislative districts in the state that are far larger. People feel more remote because of that. Add to that, both political parties here in your state of California but also throughout the country have gerrymandered more and more legislative seats, which means that there's very little democracy, or less democracy in terms of competition, in 80% or more of the legislative districts.

Peter Robinson: So Bob is absolutely right. The legislature does begin to lose touch with the people.

Thomas Cronin: In some respects, there is less democracy.

Peter Robinson: I see. Peter?

Peter Schrag: Well, I think in quite a few respects, I think partly Bob is right the legislature has been non-responsive; but, I think this is a vicious circle because, the more initiatives we pass, the less discretion the legislature has, the less ability it has.

Peter Robinson: Let me get the opinion of our guests on direct democracy in principle.

Title: Not-So Innocent Bystanders

Peter Robinson: We've got 18 states that have a recall of some kind--mostly western states have various forms of direct democracy--but it's something like three dozen that permit some form of it for local government. So here's the case against. Case study is California. Prop. 13 in 1978 cuts local property taxes about in half. Prop. 98 passes in 1988 requires 40% of the general fund to be spent on public schools. Then you've got--what was the term limit prop?

Robert Stern: 140.

Peter Robinson: Prop. 140. And what year was that, again?

Peter Schrag: 1990.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Prop. 140 in 1990 places term limits on assemblymen and--on all state office holders, in fact--and so what you get is by direct democracy, this piece of the budget is set aside, it has to be spent in such and such a way, this way of raising revenues is curtailed, and by the way, Mr. Assemblyman or Ms. Senator, you're only going to get a couple terms in Sacramento, anyway. And, what it does is reduce the representatives to the status of bystanders. Tom?

Thomas Cronin: I don't think that's exactly true. I think that's overstated. I think that there's plenty for them to do. We see in every state capitol right now in the country, wrestling over budgetary priorities and we also see plenty of people willing to run for statewide offices and so on. A lot of people said that if you had a recall initiative process, it would lessen the likelihood of good people running for office. I don't think there's much evidence of that.

Peter Robinson: You are a long-time Sacramento watcher, professional Sacramento watcher, has there been any change in the nature or quality of candidates for the legislature?

Peter Schrag: I think that's hard to measure. But, what certainly is clear is that their institutional loyalties, their experience, their background, their knowledge of important state issues, of very complicated state issues has decreased considerably. I think there's also, partly because of term limits, partly because of the gerrymandering, which I agree started, well I suppose it started in 1789, or something, but...

Peter Robinson: But, they've gotten better at it.

Robert Stern: They have computers now...

Peter Robinson: Demoraphic studies are more precise. You can set up completely Hispanic district or completely WASP district, which is harder.

Thomas Cronin: And both political parties are…

Peter Schrag: But that really started, this sort of precise, high-tech gerrymandering really didn't start until after Prop. 13. It really started in the '80s.

Peter Robinson: It's a creature of the '80s.

Peter Schrag: But, I think another thing that I think we have to be, you said, "What happened?" And I think one of the things that happened is that the same technologies or similar technologies that are being used for gerrymandering are also being used, obviously, to further the initiative process. And, it's created an industry that I don't think was visualized in 1911 with the consultants, the signature gathering, the pollsters, that whole business. So, and that industry itself has an interest now in promoting initiatives.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so you're the man who's the rabble-rouser. You've been on the side of the ballot initiatives for a long time now. So, why would anybody run for the assembly or the senate, anymore?

Robert Stern: Because they still have lots of power. They still have lots of things to do.

Peter Robinson: They do?

Robert Stern: Of course they do.

Peter Robinson: Is it any fun up there, anymore?

Robert Stern: Well, it's not fun up there because of a budget deficit.

Peter Robinson: Up there being in Sacramento.

Robert Stern: It's not fun in any state capitol, these days, whether it's Sacramento or Helena or Albany because of the problem of a recession that we're having. So, it's not as much fun when you don't have as much money. But, they do have power. They can do things. The question is, can they get together? Can they get together and work things out? That's always the...

Peter Robinson: All three of you, then, would reject the notion that somehow, direct democracy reduces far too much the importance of the elected representative. You just don't buy that.

Peter Schrag: I do buy it. I do buy some of that.

Peter Robinson: You do?

Thomas Cronin: There have been excesses. Some of the budgetary restraints and spending restraints, I think, have gone overboard. Reasonable people, I think, would agree that there have been initiatives that have sapped some of the vitality of legislatures, particularly here on the west coast.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so in California, now, according--I can't attest to this because I haven't combed through the numbers myself, but the figure you see if you read articles on the Web, is that after about three decades of direct democracy--thank you very much, Bob Stern --the governor and legislature are facing such a crisis in Sacramento right now because the only truly discretionary portion of the budget is about 20%. All they can decide to cut is about 20%. The rest is earmarked by this or that aspect of direct democracy. It's a mess!

Thomas Cronin: It's essentially the same thing at the national level as well. If you have military spending and welfare kinds of activities, you have....

Peter Robinson: In other words, at the federal level in Congress where there is no direct democracy, there is still entitlements--they still get themselves into a corner. Okay.

Thomas Cronin: That's true.

Robert Stern: You must remember that 40% of the budget is for education according to California Constitution. No legislator is going to say, okay, only 20% should be for education. The legislators will actually say it should be 45%.

Peter Robinson: Okay.

Robert Stern: So, the people have not enacted things that are unpopular in the state.

Peter Robinson: Next, the case in favor of direct democracy.

Title: You Can't Touch This

Peter Robinson: I quote The Economist magazine, "In the past ten years, California's voters have faced ballot initiatives on immigration, term limits, affirmative action and drug criminalization. In contrast, at the federal level," whereas you just pointed out there's no mechanism for ballot initiatives, "there has either been little or no congressional action on these issues; or, decisions have taken decades. There are plainly some issues that representative politicians will not touch, but that voters want their say on. You grant that?

Robert Stern: Term limits, campaign financing, those are two issues politicians will never pass. There's only been one state, I think, in the country where a legislature has imposed term limits. Every other state it's been an initiative process. You don't see that in Congress.

Peter Robinson: You'll grant this argument?

Peter Schrag: Well, I grant it except for one thing, and that is that we've had any number of campaign finance initiatives, none of which have survived because of the court...

Robert Stern: Many have survived. Washington State survived, California survived.

Peter Schrag: No, I'm talking about--well, in California, we've had any number that didn't survive because the court struck them down.

Peter Robinson: So, are you willing to grant then, as an almost formal statement, that what has emerged is that there are some things that, if you were sitting down to write the constitution of California or Washington State or Oregon or Idaho or Colorado today, you'd say to yourself, you know, there are some things--I'm not saying the west, just because that's where ballot initiatives tend to occur--there are some things that elected representatives are good at, and there are some things that by their very nature ought to be left to the people. And, this has sorted itself out in the last 30 years. A direct democracy is an essential instrument.

Thomas Cronin: I think it's much messier than that, Peter. I think that there are good people in both political parties willing to raise important issues and so on. The initiative and referendum process was set up to be a safety valve when legislators were not responsive. And Proposition 13 was a case in point where a surplus has been built up and to some extent, it was a safety valve and a cry saying, you know, listen to us. I think carefully regulated initiatives and referendums at the local level are basically a healthy phenomenon.

Peter Robinson: Now to the specifics of the current recall imbroglio.

Title: The Thirty-Second Time Is the Charm

Peter Robinson: There have been 31 previous attempts to place on the ballot a measure to recall a governor of California. All 31 have failed. Why has this 32nd attempt, succeeded?

Peter Schrag: Well, I think there are a number of things. To begin with, this governor is historically unpopular, and has been for some time. It happens at a time when the state has undergone an enormous fiscal crisis, an unprecedented fiscal crisis. The same governor, I think, was damaged by his slow handling of the energy crisis three years ago. So there were a whole series of things that conspired in this case.

Peter Robinson: So, it's a just and reasonable measure because Gray Davis, since the enactment of the recall in 1911, Gray Davis is the worst California governor...

Peter Schrag: I haven't finished my list.

Peter Robinson: Ah. It's television. It can't run too long but go ahead.

Peter Schrag: Well, I think there are a number of things. I think there is an ugly political climate in the country. And, I think we've seen it in the Clinton impeachment, we saw it in Florida with the recount in Gore vs. Bush, we're seeing it now in Texas--have seen it in Texas with the attempt to do yet another re-districting. So, I think there is a kind of partisanship and an intense partisanship that…

Peter Robinson: So, is this a judicious and salutary use of the recall, or is it a corruption of the measure?

Peter Schrag: I would say it's a corruption of the measure.

Peter Robinson: You would.

Peter Schrag: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Tom?

Thomas Cronin: I would agree. I think it's a dubious use of the recall. I think the recall is a valid thing to be used, but in the state of California, I think we need to digress on this, Peter, for a moment. The 12% signature level and the election on the same day of replacements make the system here a flawed system. We can get back to that.

Peter Robinson: I promise to get back to that, because those are obviously very important points. But the question I have: so, California is one of only two states in the country that requires a 2/3 majority in the legislature to pass a budget. And, what that means is that every one of these stinkin' budgets that got this state in such a mess had a lot of Democrats and a lot of Republicans in the legislature voting for it and nobody's going after them. This is a crude, blunt and rather stupid instrument. Bob?

Robert Stern: It is crude but, as I said earlier on, I said, all it takes is a wacko millionaire to get this recall on the ballot.

Peter Robinson: Do you wish to go on record as calling Darrell Issa a wacko millionaire?

Robert Stern: No, I said Darrell Issa is a millionaire, but he's not wacko.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Robert Stern: Because this is before Darrell Issa. I said a wacko millionaire could get this on the ballot, and a millionaire did get this on the ballot. But, if you take a look at people were lining up to sign this. It wasn't like this was a surprise to people; it wasn't like anybody had a subterfuge. People wanted this recall. If you'd had a 20% or 25% of the public signing this, they would have qualified it for the ballot, in any case.

Peter Robinson: You think so?

Thomas Cronin: The key issue here is that he was elected by the people last November and you had a recall movement against him beginning in February. That's eight weeks or ten weeks after he was elected. And I think you really, I would think, need malfeasance or misfeasance or something of that order.

Robert Stern: But we have the malfeasance.

Peter Robinson: But he so misrepresented his own record and the actual state of the budget during the reelection campaign that that ought to be grounds for recall in itself. What I'm trying to get at is this: If you can't use the recall to recall Gray Davis, who could you use it--what circumstances can you imagine?

Thomas Cronin: Governor Evan Mecham in Arizona in 1988 is about a case, Peter, where he had alienated a lot of people, he had done favors politically for donors. He had done a lot of things that upset his own party. His own party wound up impeaching and convicting him in the state legislature. But, he would've been recalled a few weeks later on a scheduled recall election. That is Exhibit A of where the recall made sense.

Robert Stern: But, you know, Gray Davis did distort the Republican primary by pumping unprecedented interfering with another party's primary by trying to get rid of the strongest candidate and elect or nominate the weakest candidate. So, you could make an argument that there was some corruption of the process by Gray Davis, and he deserves to be on the ballot again, up against strong candidates. I think the process needs to be changed, but I think that the process...

Peter Robinson: William Safire in the New York Times. I want you gentlemen to vote on this judgment, all right? Safire in the New York Times, "Crimes in office can be dealt with by impeachment," as Peter has just attested. Even here in California, we have means for doing so. "But, when knee-jerk voting leads to profound misjudgment, the voters recourse should await the next regular election." The voters of California re-elected Gray Davis and they darn well ought to live with it. Yes or no?

Thomas Cronin: Generally, that's the case. There should be an exception when somebody has really done corrupt activity.

Peter Robinson: But that would be the impeachment.

Thomas Cronin: The impeachment depends on the legislature having the guts and courage to do their work, and that's not always going to be the case.

Peter Robinson: Okay, and so this is all misbegotten.

Peter Schrag: I find it interesting that Bob says that Davis corrupted the primary, which I think he did. But Republican voters voted for Bill Simon. They're the ones that voted for him. It's hard for me to say that the voters are right when they vote on an initiative, but they were wrong when they voted to nominate Bill Simon.

Peter Robinson: Very clever. He's got you--give me an up or down on this. Is this recall on Gray Davis a mistake?

Robert Stern: It is a mistake, but I can understand the reason for it.

Peter Robinson: All three of our guests have their misgivings about the current recall. Well then, what is the solution to California's political problems?

Title: Taking the Initiative…Please

Peter Robinson: A respected California historian, now the state librarian, Kevin Starr, I quote, "There has never been a comparable crisis in California's history. We are talking about the fifth or sixth largest economy in the world. The crisis necessitates nothing less than the re-foundation of our state." Let me suggest a few fundamental reforms for California, but that would have implications for the way other states run their business as well, and get you to comment. Reform #1: Get rid of direct democracy and get rid of all the measures over the last 3 decades: Prop. 13, out. Prop. 98 and the term limits, get rid of them, and return to genuinely representative democracy where the people get to go to Sacramento, stay as long as the voters in their districts want to continue to return them, decide for themselves how to tax the people of California, decide for themselves how to spend the money, and then face the voters on election day.

Robert Stern: Ideally, you're right. The legislature is the best way to enact laws. Practically, you're wrong. The legislature is not responsive. The people generally enact things that they support, that they know what they're voting for. They turn down most of these initiatives. And I think that the process itself needs to be improved. The initiative process needs to be improved, but also maintained.

Peter Robinson: You go with that? You like this initiative.

Peter Schrag: Well, no I don't like it, but I don't think we're going to get rid of it. I think it's here to stay, because...

Peter Robinson: I thought, as a journalist, it gives you these wonderful, colorful stories.

Peter Schrag: Well, of course, absolutely! I mean, you know, this situation's wonderful for journalists. May not be great for anybody else, but it's wonderful for journalists.

Peter Robinson: But it's a heck of a story!

Peter Schrag: To your list, if I were going to be idealistic, I would add that you have to create some device to prevent the gerrymandering to create districts that are competitive districts, because I think that will have an effect of moderating the partisanship....

Thomas Cronin: And that's highly unlikely.

Peter Robinson: Then let me run down a list of reforms and just, because it's television, we have to move quickly, but I have the--so these are adjustments, let's say. One, you can move to a form of gerrymandering--this is on the books in Iowa--it limits gerrymandering. It makes it the simplest geographical distribution that fits population that's possible. So you end up with genuinely competitive congressional districts. I don't know if it involves the legislature as well. So, if you could get something like that enacted in California, you'd go for that, right?

Robert Stern: And Arizona has something like that, yes.

Peter Robinson: Okay. You'd keep the recall, but you'd increase the number of signatures required…

Thomas Cronin: …from 12%-25%…

Peter Robinson: …12%-25%…

Thomas Cronin: Or maybe 30%.

Robert Stern: It wouldn't matter.

Thomas Cronin: It would matter, because studies of initiatives show that it's completely--how much you have is correlated with what your signature level is. If you have high signature levels like Wyoming and Utah, you rarely have them. In California, you have them a lot because signature level is low. It's a direct correlation.

Peter Robinson: So you say it's the signature level and bring it down a little bit.

Thomas Cronin: So I would have 25% or 30%. And, I would also have--I would suggest to you what the State of Washington has, Peter, for the State of California, which is to have some justification on malfeasance or misfeasance or corruption that a state judge would have to pass on. It wouldn't have to be proven, but you'd have to have some grounds.

Peter Robinson: Some plausibility or probable cause or some…

Thomas Cronin: In the case of Governor Davis, as I understand it, I'm not a Californian, but as I understand it, it's just we don't like his policies, we think he's uninspired, we think that he's done a poor job. But there isn't a view that he's broken a law.

Peter Robinson: It's not completely outlandish. In parliamentary systems, there's such a thing as a vote of no confidence. That's roughly what it is. We just don't like him, any more. We don't want--okay. And then, now what about this rule that the legislature in California has to achieve an 2/3 majority to pass the budget. Drop that to 55%?

Robert Cronin: That's ridiculous at the 2/3 level. Yes, 55%.

Peter Robinson: You go with that?

Peter Schrag: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Let me propose one last reform, one that would address the fiscal irresponsibility of California politicians.

Title: A Golden Rule?

Peter Robinson: In 1992, Colorado enacted a measure whereby the increase in the state budget could be no more than the increase in population plus inflation. They've had eleven years of experience with that. Colorado is a happy state. They're not facing a gigantic deficit like the one here in California. What we have in California is a legislature that is incapable of restraining itself when the revenues are coming in, and if we just put an overall limit on spending, one more big public measure, this will once again be the golden state. Don't you love that one, Peter?

Peter Schrag: Uh, no. And I think one of the things that we really should talk about, because first of all, Colorado is a very different state from California for lots of reasons, and I'm not sure that they're that happy, but that's another issue.

Peter Robinson: Californians are moving there.

Peter Schrag: Well, that's true. They're moving to Idaho and they're moving to, you know...

Peter Robinson: Okay. What's wrong with that?

Peter Schrag: Well, I think there are several things. And I think this is one of the basic root causes of all of California's problems is that we are a huge state, we are demographically very complicated, very diverse, and inherently it makes political consensus more difficult than it would in Iowa or in Kansas or even in Colorado, though Colorado is more diverse than Iowa, you know.

Peter Robinson: It's getting bigger and more complicated as it builds.

Peter Schrag: But, it seems to me that that amendment you talked about in Colorado has caused all kinds of constraints and difficulties for the schools and for other local government, and....

Peter Robinson: But that's just life. I mean, nobody has as much money as he wants…

Peter Schrag: That's true.

Peter Robinson: This is just the people rising up to say, we're going to establish--you must love this one, no?

Robert Stern: No. Too restrictive.

Peter Robinson: Tom?

Thomas Cronin: A bit too restrictive.

Peter Robinson: A bit too restrictive? Ah. All right.

Robert Stern: We're all against you on this one.

Peter Robinson: Yes you are, yes you are. I can't tell you how downcast that makes me. All right let's go around--it's television, we have to move quickly alas. Give me one reform you'd make. Tom?

Thomas Cronin: Higher signature levels and on the recall measure, I would also have justification, some cause that would be instituted.

Peter Robinson: So you're fundamentally a contented man. You're making adjustments.

Thomas Cronin: I would regulate both the recall, and the same with initiatives processes, too.

Peter Robinson: Peter?

Peter Schrag: Well, I would agree with that. California's also unique, in having an initiative process that is very immutable, unlike most other states where the legislature after a period of time can amend...

[Talking at same time]

Peter Schrag: ...and in California, you can't without another vote of the people. So, anything you pass by the initiative is pretty much set in concrete until the people vote again.

Robert Stern: Get rid of the 2/3 vote, bring it down to 55%. Californians, by the way, probably with another initiative will be voting on that in March.

Peter Robinson: Are you behind this one, too?

Robert Stern: No, I'm not behind this one.

Peter Robinson: All right. For once!

Robert Stern: And then also change the initiative process so that the legislature reviews initiatives first, allows the legislature to pass the initiative if they want to, and then after that, the proponents can take the hearings that the legislature's had and change the initiative as a bill, and put the amended...

Thomas Cronin: There is a form called "indirect initiative" that four or five states like Massachusetts have which actually provides for this. In other words, before something can go on a ballot, it has to come before the state legislature, be debated and voted up or down, prior to...

Peter Robinson: But it then can still go to the people even if the legislature…

Thomas Cronin: …but it has the beneficial effect that Bob suggested, of debates and hearings and record an testimony and, if we were going to begin all over again, my recommendation would be the indirect initiative rather than direct initiative.

Peter Robinson: Last question: This is not what should happen, but what you think will. Five years from now, will Californians have amended the recall process and initiative process along the lines you have suggested? Or will they be glorying in it as it is.

Robert Stern: There'll be some slight changes, slight improvements.

Peter Robinson: Only tinkering. Peter?

Peter Schrag: No more than tinkering.

Peter Robinson: No more than tinkering. Tom?

Thomas Cronin: I think one of the lessons came out of Florida in the Electoral College debate, just a year or so ago, was that it's very hard to change these kinds of things in the heat of the moment. So, I would actually predict that even though it should be changed, I doubt that it will.

Peter Robinson: All right. Gentlemen, thank you very much. I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge. Thanks for joining us.