Experts weigh in on recall election

    While elephants and donkeys may not shoot out of cannons, walk high wires or perform trapeze acts, California’s Oct. 7 gubernatorial recall election has the potential to be a political circus, the likes of which has never before been witnessed in this state.

    At least that’s according to a handful of UCSD professors who have been earmarked by the university as experts on the recall election. Since the beginning of the recall process, these professors have been tapped by national news agencies as well as local television and radio stations to provide insight into the rapidly changing election scene.

    While the experts vary in their arguments, most assert that the recall provision of the state constitution was not intended to recall a governor who has not committed any crimes.

    “”My own view of the recall effort is that, in the final analysis … it’s not about the budget crisis, it’s not about difficulties that the California economy is experiencing, it’s none of those things,”” history professor Michael Bernstein said. “”It’s really a very cold, calculated effort by the conservative wing of the Republican Party to stage a coup.””

    Bernstein, a specialist in the economic and political history of the United States, views the recall mechanism as a way to remove a criminal governor from office similar to the way that the U.S. Constitution allows for the impeachment of the president for “”high crimes and misdemeanors.””

    “”The man is guilty of no crime. The man has committed no malfeasance,”” Bernstein said, referring to Gov. Gray Davis. “”The recall is not intended to allow wealthy people like Darrell Issa to hijack the will of the people in a major state like this.””

    Issa, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from north San Diego County, garnered media attention early in the recall process by using over $1 million of his own money to hire signature gatherers across the state to obtain the signatures needed to call a special election.

    Thad Kousser, an assistant professor of government at UCSD, said that while almost every initiative in California is the result of a group or individual putting forth large amounts of funds, the recall election proves that “”if you’ve got a million dollars, you can get just about anything on the ballot.

    “”But that doesn’t invalidate the fact that close to 2 million Californians thought it was a good idea to have a recall, and more than half of people, given the current polls, think that the recall is something that they’re willing to support,”” Kousser said. “”I don’t think it’s fundamentally undemocratic that there was some money involved in the process.””

    Other experts, like political science professor Gary Jacobson, were cautious not to place blame on one party.

    “”In one sense, it’s a Republican coup. They couldn’t win the election, but they’re hoping that they’re going to win a re-run of it with a different candidate,”” Jacobson said. “”On the other hand, people were really upset with Gray Davis and this is an opportunity for them to express that unhappiness.””

    On Election Day, voters will be faced with a two-part ballot. The first item is the recall question. The second item includes a randomly ordered list of the 135 candidates vying to replace the governor if he is recalled.

    “”This is a two-candidate race and it’s always been a two-candidate race on the second part of the ballot,”” Kousser said. “”So while it may be a little bit hard to find peoples’ names and while a few people may be tempted to vote for their wacky neighbor, I think most voters in California are smart enough to pick out [Arnold] Schwarzenegger or [Lt. Gov. Cruz] Bustamante from the long list.””

    Complicating the race further was a ruling by a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 15 that the election could not be held as scheduled because of outdated voting equipment that would disenfranchise voters in six counties. An 11-judge panel of the same court later reversed that decision.

    Communications professor Dan Hallin explained that the court was faced with a “”no-win”” situation.

    “”It’s very clear that the election actually is an unfair election,”” said Hallin, an expert on political communications and the media. “”Because you have these old-fashioned voting machines in certain places, there really are some voters that are disenfranchised. On the other hand, if the court were to delay the election, I think that a lot of people would feel really angry about that.””

    Kousser said that the added media attention created by the court’s rulings might actually lead to an increased voter turnout.

    The experts deem the structure of the two debates and many television spots typical of a gubernatorial election. However, the large number of minor candidates has added new dimensions to candidates’ media outreach.

    “”It was kind of refreshing to have a wider range of candidates than you usually have,”” Hallin said. “”You had more points of view and not such bland points of view reflected than you do in a lot of debates.””

    Kousser, however, found the contrast “”between the circus and the dysfunction of the debate and the sort of elevated public discourse of the court decisions … kind of ridiculous. It wasn’t an enjoyable debate for me to watch, even for a political junkie.””

    If the recall effort is successful, professors worry it may become a political weapon that will be used again in the future.

    “”The Democrats are not going to have amnesia about the way this recall was used,”” Kousser said. “”Every 10 years in California we’ve had a big fiscal crisis and the next time this comes around, it certainly is an arrow that the Democrats might pull out of their quiver.””

    Student reaction to the recall is mixed.

    John Allison, chair of the Conservative Union, finds Davis’ actions disappointing.

    “”While I recognize things like the Internet bubble that burst and being caught with our pants down in the electricity crisis, Mr. Davis really did not come out as a leader,”” Allison said.

    However, Kate Maull, president of the Campus Democrats, called the recall an attempt to reverse a legitimate election.

    “”I don’t think [the recall election] is democracy,”” Maull said. “”I think eight million people going to the polls and voting for their governor is much more legitimate than people being harangued into signing the [recall] petition in front of a Target store.””

    No matter who becomes governor, UCSD experts foresee the future governor being plagued by the same problems that Davis faced.

    “”There is nothing in the process that’s going to solve the problems that Davis faced or that the state’s faced in terms of its budget, that the university faces in terms of its budget, etc.,”” Jacobson said. “”Whoever ends up there, they’re going to face the same sort of problems, which are that there’s not enough money and there’s too much demand on it; and if you’re going to balance the budget, its going to involve some very painful draconian cuts or some tax increases, or both.””

    Even partisan politics are taking a different form for this recall election. Issa, who ended his campaign to replace Davis before the filing deadline, encouraged Republicans at one point to vote against the recall in order to avoid replacing Davis with Bustamante. Independent candidate Arianna Huffington, who withdrew from the race on Sept. 30, has also switched to campaigning against the recall.

    “”This will not be a mandate to govern, it will not be a mandate to drive the legislature forward. This will be a circus,”” Bernstein said. “”What one can then hope for is that not too much damage is done before the next formal gubernatorial election, when we can have a real campaign. Then the state can make its decision.””

    On-campus residents who are registered to vote in San Diego can cast their ballot in Half Dome Lounge, located in the Muir Apartments near the Muir College Center, between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Oct. 7.

    Students living off campus can find the location of their polling place printed on the back of the sample ballot that was mailed earlier this month, or at the San Diego County Registrar of Voters Web site,

    Absentee voters must mail their ballots in time to be received by their county election office before the polls close on Oct. 7. Postmark dates are not acceptable.

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