By any standard, Gray Davis’ performance as governor has been a monumental disappointment. His mishandling of the energy crisis cost the state billions. His administration has doled out favors to campaign contributors in a shameless, quid-pro-quo manner, and he has presided over a fiscal collapse that seems destined to devastate the state’s schools.
So, it comes as no surprise that Davis is facing a recall. Recent weeks have seen the certification of petitions by the secretary of state, and supporters now have approximately five months to gather the 1 million signatures they need to put the recall to a popular vote.
It’s tempting to want to support this effort to oust the frustratingly inept governor. But the unfortunate truth is that the recall would cost too much—an estimated $25 million—and accomplish too little. Specifically, a recall won’t solve the underlying problems that have given California voters such dismal choices in recent years.
Davis’ campaign made the flaws in our electoral system painfully clear. To begin with, the state has a closed primary, in which voters may choose from only their own party’s candidates to determine the gubernatorial race. Because no Democrat of any stature wanted to challenge a sitting governor, members of that party had no real choice but to vote for Davis.
Knowing this, Davis focused his spending on the Republican race and aired $9 million worth of attack ads against the GOP’s most viable candidate, Richard Riordan. Riordan was defeated, and the Republicans had to accept the fatally flawed Bill Simon as their candidate.
The result was a general election that aptly illustrated the problems inherent in the two-party system. Voters didn’t like Davis or Simon, but most proved reluctant to “throw away” their votes on third-party candidates with no real chance of winning. A record number decided not to vote at all.
All of this must change, and the best way to change it is with the introduction of Instant Runoff Voting, a reform endorsed by the Green Party of California. Under this system, voting takes place in a single ballot, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference: first choice, second and so forth. If no candidate gains more than a 50-percent majority in the first round of tabulation, then second-choice votes are added to the mix. The process continues until one candidate has a majority.
The advantages are many: Primaries are eliminated, shortening the election season and saving money. Negative campaigning is discouraged because candidates who bad-mouth opponents will be unlikely to gain many second- and third-choice votes from those opponents’ supporters. Third parties lose the stigma of being “spoilers,” and voters need not feel that their only choices are to support the lesser of two evils or stay home.
Gray Davis’ tenure as governor has been conclusive proof that our political system is broken. But recalling Davis won’t fix it. Let’s channel that energy in a more productive direction, and work for electoral reforms including Instant Runoff Voting.