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California Recall: How It Happened and What's Next

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The California recall election is finished, and California has a new governor.

By a vote of 55 percent to 45 percent, California's voters spoke their mind loud and clear that Gov. Gray Davis should be removed for office. In his place, the voters selected film star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who outpolled Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante 48 percent to 32 percent.

The election had been postponed by a federal Appeals Court, which had ruled that the punchcard that state officials plan to require voters to use was illegal under the Supreme Court decision that determined that George W. Bush was president in 2000. Then, the Appeals court had reversed itself, saying that the election could go forward, since 700,000 absentee ballots had already been received and the state had already spent millions of dollars to mail election materials to voters.

Backers of the recall election blamed Davis for the state's economic troubles. Davis, elected just last year, was suffering one of the state's all-time low approval levels. Voters agreed, apparently, elected Schwarzenegger, a political novice, to the state's highest governmental office and allowing him a chance to make good on his campaign promise to "Bring California Back."

The recall of a high-ranking government official is a provision in California's constitution that was instituted in 1911 under the guidance of then-Gov. Hiram Johnson, a member of the Progressive Party, which urged, among other things, that people take more of a direct role in government. Johnson also helped write into the constitution provisions for the initiative and referendums that have been to prevalent through the years on California's ballots.

It was not the first time that voters in California have tried to recall their governor. In fact, it was the 31st time. Among the previous targets were Republicans Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson. The last 30 times, however, not enough signatures were gathered and the recall drive failed to reach the ballot.

This time was different. A series of devastating economic setbacks set the stage, including the energy crisis of a few years ago and the crushing collapse of the Internet economy. Davis narrowly got re-elected in 2002, and he continued to feel the heat this year.

The man behind the drive to recall Davis was Ted Costa, an anti-tax crusader who didn't run for governor and has since moved on to other issues. Once Costa started the ball rolling, however, it rolled over Davis and carried Schwarzenegger into the governor's mansion.

Voter interest and turnout were both high. Estimates put the turnout at 60 percent, the highest for a nonpresidential election since 1982 and a full 10 points higher than for last year's election, which kept Davis in office.

The last governor to be recalled was Lynn J. Frazier of North Dakota, way back in 1921.

Schwarzenegger won't take office right away. These steps must take place first:

  • Beginning Thursday, October 9, election officials will perform a hand count of ballots in a randomly chosen 1 percent of the voting precincts. This is called the official canvass and must be completed in 28 days.
  • Beginning November 4, a recount can be requested. The official canvass must be finished first.
  • Anytime between November 15 and November 24, the secretary of state must certify the election and Schwarzenegger must take the oath of office. During this time, Davis must also leave the office.

Schwarzenegger might face a recall of his own. Not long after the final results were announced, talk was heard of another recall, this one coming in March, when the presidential primary takes place. Assuming that he survives such an effort if it reaches the ballot or that it never becomes a legitimate voting issue, Schwarzenegger would be eligible for re-election in 2006.

California is still in deep economic trouble. Government projections estimate that the budget deficit for next year will be $8 billion. Schwarzenegger has cast himself as an outside, beholden to neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party. As such, he might find it difficult to, as he has promised, "get things done." And as an elected Republican, he faces fierce partisan opposition from both houses of the state legislature, which have Democratic majorities, and from other statewide elected officials, the majority of which are also Democrats.

Schwarzenegger must present his budget plan to the legislature by January 10. During his campaign, he refused to endorse plans that would raise taxes or cut education spending. He also said that he would work to repeal a planned tripling of automobile licensing fees, a measure that would bring in $4 billion. He did not say how he would make up for that planned non-collection of revenue.