California's recall election has drawn international attention. The successful recall petition against Democratic Governor Gray Davis and the entry of celebrity candidates such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and columnist Arianna Huffington have combined to create entertaining political drama.
The Governor re-elected last November by a significant margin is blamed for a worsening fiscal crisis and California's ongoing electricity woes. Ironically, responsibility for these problems rests in great measure with the Bush Republicans who have downloaded costs to the states and instituted a failed deregulation agenda. However, the Republicans targeted Davis and financed the recall petition drive, which succeeded in forcing a recall election with 1.3 million signatures concentrated in Republican Southern California legislative districts.
For a statewide office such as Governor, recall proponents need to gather the names of current California voters equal to 12 per cent of those who voted in the last election for that office. As turnout in state elections is under 50 per cent, this means that the petition requires only 6 per cent of registered voters. The 1.3 million voters who signed the petition to oust Governor Davis represented far less than 10 per cent of those eligible to vote in the state.
In the case of a California State Assemblyman or Senator (roughly equivalent to our MLAs), the number of voters required is 20 per cent of those who voted in the last election in the member's district.
California's laws show just how difficult it is comparatively to recall an MLA in BC. In our province, a successful recall petition requires 40 per cent of registered voters at the time of the last election whether those voters participated or not.
Take the example of Delta South where recall proponents found 9,999 valid signatures in their efforts to recall BC Liberal MLA Val Roddick. This represented 34 per cent of eligible voters in the riding the most successful recall petition since BC's recall laws were enacted but short of the 40 per cent required to force a recall election.
Under California law however, proponents would have only required 20 per cent of the total votes cast (21,785) in the last election. The number of signatures to succeed would have been 4,357. Delta South recall proponents gathered more than twice that total. Moreover, in Delta South, many signatures from current Delta South voters were disqualified because they had moved into the riding since the 2001 election. This is not the case in California where any registered voter in a district can sign a recall petition. Other recall petitions, such as the one against the Premier in Vancouver Point Grey, signed up thousands of signatures but failed against BC's tough standards.
Val Roddick, Premier Gordon Campbell and Victoria MLAs such as Jeff Bray were protected from recall by BC's recall provisions. All of them would have been recalled under the California system.
What conclusions can we draw from the California example about BC politics?
First, the BC Liberals are unpopular with voters and the recall campaigns launched by citizens groups were very strong. Governor Davis' popularity ratings are at 20 per cent and the recall proponents spent millions of dollars on the efforts. Yet, citizens' groups in BC rounded up a lot more signatures against the Premier and Val Roddick in percentage terms than California Republicans signed up to oust Davis.
Secondly, the present recall laws in BC, passed by the NDP in the mid-1990s, were intended to have a high threshold for success. This ensured that frivolous or partisan recall campaigns would be discouraged, and recall would be reserved for only significant transgressions by MLAs.
However, the California example shows that a lower threshold for recall does not automatically result in misuse. Prior to Governor Davis, only 4 California politicians had been successfully recalled in 80 years. Given the number of elected offices in the state from Governor to Insurance Commissioner, this demonstrates admirable restraint by a famously ornery California electorate. A more reasonable threshold for recall in BC may not result in undue political chaos.
Finally, politicians' opinions about recall laws seem to vary based on whether or not they happen to be in elected office. Premier Campbell's political operative Kevin Falcon (now a Cabinet Minister) organized a failed total recall effort against the NDP when in opposition and argued that signature requirements should be lowered. Now, in government, the Premier fulminates against the misuse of recall and its costs to the Provincial Treasury.
Liberal Democrats in California are now complaining about the use of recall provisions by their right-wing opponents and the cost in terms of money and reputation to the state of the current special election. Yet, recall laws were enacted by progressives in California as a defense for citizens against the misuse of government by powerful corporate interests.
Recall efforts against successive NDP and BC Liberal MLAs suggest that BC's process is too cumbersome to be a reasonable restraint on government action. Changes could be made to empower citizens without making recall too easy: the threshold should be 40 per cent of votes cast in the last general election as opposed to 40 per cent of registered voters and all voters currently living in a given constituency should be able to sign a recall petition.
These changes would make recall work, without subjecting our elected officials to unreasonable harassment.