By Phil Nash
August 14, 2003
The California recall election scheduled
for October 7 th is portrayed as a joke on television, with our
entertaining news networks focusing on the candidates for Governor
in case current Governor Gray Davis is voted out: comedians, movie
stars, a big-breasted woman in pink, and dozens of others finding
their 15 minutes of fame.
Democracy is not a joke, however, and we
laugh at this crisis of democracy at our own peril. The fiscal
crisis that has engulfed the state of California is only too
familiar to those of us in other states, and the governor who
emerges on October 7 th is going to make decisions that will affect
the pocketbooks and lives of all Americans.
We can debate about how
much of the current crisis is Gov. Davis's fault and how much blame
lies on other doorsteps (has anyone been fired from the federal
government or spent time in jail after the "energy crisis" allegedly
precipitated or participated in by Kenneth Lay and President Bush's
other close friends at Enron?).
Governor Davis is, in some ways,
the epitome of the type of candidates generated by a money-driven,
winner-take-all electoral system. He is good at raising money and at
taking positions that help him win the tiny slice of the electorate
that gives him the majority he needs to win the election. As the
recall petition proves, however, he has angered and alienated a
broad cross-section of the California electorate, including
Republicans, independents, non-voters, and Democrats.
Even Lt. Gov.
Cruz Bustamante, the Latino Democrat who has thrown his hat in the
ring in case Davis is ousted, is a product of a system that
encourages candidates who can cozy up to Big Money. Latino activists
complain that they must support Bustamante to prevent Democrats from
losing, despite his siding with casino owners and agribusiness
against hotel workers and farm workers.
Direct democracy through
recall votes is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. Recall
provisions are included in the by-laws of many corporations and
non-profit organizations. According to Ballot Access News, 17 states
(Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas,
Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North
Dakota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin) also have statewide
recall provisions, with some requiring as little as 10 percent of
the latest voter turnout.
The reason recall got this far is not
just that Republican Congressman Darryl Issa put a lot of money into
the recall petition drive. Voter turnout was so low in 2002, fueled
in part by the nasty, negative campaigns that money-driven,
winner-take-all electoral systems inevitably produce, that only 5.9%
of registered voters had to sign a recall petition. Over 1.3 million
valid signatures were obtained by a workforce that was 80% paid and
Going forward, how should Asian Pacific Americans
and all Americans address the recall frenzy that has pushed the
Democratic Presidential Primary, the fiscal crisis in most of our
states, the already-won-but-still-unfinished war in Iraq, and other
key issues off the front pages of our newspapers? Those in
California should use this as an opportunity to get involved in
democracy in a direct way. Get off your couch and get involved
behind your favorite candidate, whether Governor Davis, Lt. Gov.
Bustamante, Arnold "the Terminator" Schwarzenegger, former baseball
commissioner Peter Ueberroth, or Davis's GOP opponent last November,
Bill Simon, Jr.
Among the Asian Pacific American candidates you
might want to support are Republicans David Tak Wai Liu, Van Vo, and
Donald Wang, Democrat Vikramjit Bajwa, and independent Shu Yih Liu.
Third party and alternative candidates also have a shot in this
unusual election, so be sure to check out the websites of
alternative candidates such as the Reform Party's Jeff Rainforth
(www.rainforth4congress.org/), the Green Party's Peter Camejo
(www.votecamejo.org), muckraker Arianna Huffington
(www.ariannaforgov.com), and all of the other candidates listed at
If you live in San Francisco, that
city is leading the way with a mayoral vote this fall that uses
Instant Runoff Voting, a system of balloting that provides a way out
of the winner-take-all mess we are in. If IRV were in place
statewide, we would not face the spectre of candidates such as Mr.
Schwarzenegger, who are accountable to no one and who have no
experience in elective office, getting a small percentage of the
votes cast and assuming the highest elective office in a state that
will have a decisive impact on the national election in 2004.
IRV, candidates must get a majority of the votes cast, so candidates
must run on a positive platform, not casting aspersions on their
opponents. And big money interests would not be able to suppress
voter turnout and hurt their least-favorite candidate using negative
ads, because IRV elections are about winning with a positive message
that brings people together, not a negative message that keeps
people divided or at home on election day.
For those of us living
outside California, this is no time to just sit in front of the
television and gawk at the distress of our brothers and sisters in
the Golden State. The suppression of the African American vote,
voting machine errors, and other aspects of the debacle in Florida
during the 2000 election have not been addressed in many states. And
there is a lot of work to be done to make our voting machines,
electoral processes, and political parties more responsive to
one-person-one-vote democracy in every state.