The Fair and Balanced Weasel
2003-08-15 12:50:27 UTC
Behind the glitzy facade of California's recall saga lie issues deeply
significant for US democracy and the 2004 presidential election,
writes Julian Borger
Friday August 15, 2003
Just when you thought it was safe to go back in a voting booth, it's
back, it's nasty and it's in California.
I'm not talking about the Terminator. It's worse. I'm talking about
the chad - that tiny piece of cardboard on the back of punch- card
ballots that triggered a constitutional meltdown in Florida in 2000.
By the end of that fiasco, chads in all their forms - dimpled,
pregnant and hanging - were considered such a threat to democracy that
punch-card voting was abandoned in several states, including
California. But in many Californian counties the system will only be
phased out by March 2004. Before the campaign to recall the governor,
Gray Davis, was launched, no one had expected a major election until
after that date.
As you may remember (unless you have deliberately blacked it out as a
hallucination), punch-card ballots are defined by their little
serrated boxes next to the names of the candidates. The voters have to
knock one box out with a stylus to indicate their choice, so the punch
cards can be read by machine. That is where the chad comes in. A
tenacious chad can cling to the card by one, two or three corners. Or
it can hang on by all four and just bulge where it is hit by the
stylus, thus becoming dimpled or pregnant. So when the card gets fed
into the vote- reading machine, the chad can easily get pushed back
into place and no vote is recorded. It becomes a spoiled ballot.
The Florida precedent also suggests that where there is chad, there
will also be lawyers. Davis has mounted a series of legal challenges
to the recall vote scheduled for October 7, and one of them was about
chads. His argument was that as punch cards have higher error rates
than other voting methods, the 67% of the population living in
counties which still employ the system would be at a disadvantage.
The Californian supreme court refused to take up the governor's case,
saying that any problems could be dealt with on a case- by-case basis
after the event. (Remember how well that went in Florida?)
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has taken the
issue to the federal courts, saying the recall vote is "a fiasco
waiting to happen". The federal courts could still step in to put the
Whether the recall vote is postponed or not, there would be a question
mark over the legitimacy of the new governor. There is general
agreement that Davis has not been a great success, but he was elected
by 3.5 million Californians (nearly 50% of the vote) only nine months
According to the mechanics of the recall system, the electorate is
asked to decide whether to fire Davis, and if so choose a successor.
The new governor would be the candidate with the most votes in a
single ballot, and with a list of more than 150 hopefuls, Davis's
successor could take office with a tiny mandate. As little as 15% of
the vote will probably be enough to win - a far smaller mandate than
In essence, rightwing Republicans are deploying the Californian recall
in the same way they used impeachment against Bill Clinton, as a means
of getting rid of an incumbent they disliked without having to wait
for a regular election. The only other governor to be recalled in US
history was Lynn Frazier, in North Dakota who was kicked out in 1921
against the backdrop of a banking collapse, plummeting crop prices,
and allegations that he was a socialist promoting free love.
No one has thus far accused the buttoned-down Davis of sexual
hedonism. His main failings are that he exudes the charisma of a
lamppost (his own mother gave him the nickname Gray), and had
misfortune to be in office when the dot.com crash and an energy crisis
- which was the fault of many - knocked a huge hole in the state's
Arguably, the principal responsibility for failing to find an economic
fix lies with the state legislature, which has been unable to agree on
a workable budget. Democrats want a mix of tax increases and spending
cuts. Republicans refuse to contemplate new taxes and want the burden
of the deficit reduced by cutting social expenditure.
So if Davis is ousted, California 2003 is likely to raise as many
questions about democratic legitimacy as Florida 2000, and it will be
almost as important in terms of determining the nation's future.
Florida accounted for 25 votes in the electoral college that chooses
the president. California has 55, a fifth of the 270 votes a
presidential contender needs to win. And who sits in the governor's
mansion in the state capital, Sacramento, could have an important
bearing on which way those 55 votes go in 2004.
California has voted Democratic since Bill Clinton won it in 1992, but
in the Reagan years it was solidly Republican. Karl Rove, George
Bush's political mastermind, has long said it can be brought back to
If Arnold Schwarzenegger wins California, the Republicans argue, he
could sweep a whole phalanx of star-struck first time votes into the
Republican camp, in a state where registered Democrats outnumber
registered Republicans by 1.5 million. Furthermore, control of the
state executive can provide an important operational basis when
running a general election campaign.
On the other hand, governing California is no bowl of cherries. Ask
Gray Davis. The new governor will still face a $38bn (£23.7bn) gap in
the budget, and the same basic choice between raising taxes or cutting
school programmes, health care and so on.
Schwarzenegger has been evasive on the subject of how he would deal
with the problems, other than stressing the importance of leadership.
Judging by the number of Terminator catchphrases he has employed in
his campaign so far, he seems to think will be best provided by a
There may well be enough action movie fans in the state to lift
Schwarzenegger above the varied field of actors, porn stars and Larry
Flynt, "the smut peddler who cares". But once elected, "hasta la
vista, deficit" is not going to get the job done.
Moreover, if the Austrian-born bodybuilder's past does not catch up
with him by October 7 - the ultra-brief election campaign is thought
to help him for that reason - it will have plenty of time during the
long days in office. There is a lot to come out, including his close
ties with another notorious Austrian, Kurt Waldheim, the former UN
secretary general, Austrian president and SS war criminal. There are
also all the tabloid allegations of womanising and fondling. He will
not be able to rely on the Republican party faithful to protect him,
as the conservatives distrust him for his liberal stand on abortion,
gun control, and his vocal disowning of the Clinton impeachment
The Bush White House is being as cautious as it can about
Schwarzenegger. Reporters forced a minimal endorsement out of the
president, but the Bush camp is currently saying that despite the
actor's entreaties there are no plans to campaign openly for him. Some
argue that Rove would privately prefer Davis to stay in office and
take yet more blame for California's intractable problems, so that
Bush can run an anti- establishment campaign in 2004. The second best
Republican outcome, by that reasoning, would be for Davis's unfaithful
lieutenant, Cruz Bustamante, to take over the mantle.
That may be a hard position to maintain if Schwarzenegger emerges as
the clear Republican frontrunner, particularly in view of the actor's
past services to the Bush family.
Whichever way they calculate it, both sides seem to agree it is a
vitally important race, judging from the amount of money that is
flooding into the campaign offices. Total expenditure, fuelled in part
by Schwarzenegger's private fortune, is likely to end up well above
$50m. That is an extraordinary figure for a very short state contest.
It may not be pretty, but it will make great television.
Impeachments. Court appointments. Gerrymanderings. Recalls. Plane crashes.
Don't Republicans believe in honest elections any more?
Not dead, in jail, or a slave? Thank a liberal!
Pay your taxes so the rich don't have to.
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