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 20% volunteer.
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 http://www.politics1.com/ca.htm.
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.
With 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.