Man Without Qualities

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Snap And Fair Elections

Matt Welch scribes a California recall post mortem that recounts some very typical local liberal-Democrat rant, in this case from a music producer and Davis supporter, Steven Machat.

"What they did, is they just instrumented?—inaugurated?—the continued erosion of our fundamental rights," insisted Machat ... "We voted Gray Davis in; he should be charged and impeached. We should not be having a popularity contest because people don't like what he's doing... ... And now, it'll make it too easy [to recall future governors]. Assume the new governor gets in November first; May 1st we recall him."

It may come as a surprise to people like Mr. Machat, but Americans are in the distinct minority among world democracies in almost always voting for their public representatives in elections that occur on a regular schedule: four years, two years ... even annually. Most functioning Democracies don't tie their elections down that way. For example, the British government is constrained to hold Parliamentary elections every five years - but often does not wait for the entire period to expire. Instead, the populace is conditioned to expect "snap elections" which the government calls at its discretionon and which involves a campaign lasting only a matter of a few weeks. The California recall campaign - lamented by so many on the left as requiring an impossibly short campaign schedule - was substantially more generous than the campaign season allowed in most "snap elections."

Governments are not shy about calling snap elections for their own interest - meaning that the government senses that there is a popularity contest waiting that the government can win. The opposition often complains about that. For example, consider this grousing about a New Zealand snap election, chosen more or less at random:

With Parliament now having closed and the country gearing up for a snap election, most people remain totally confused as to why the election has been forced on us. It is especially perplexing given that both of the Alliance Party leaders as well as the Greens had categorically promised to support Labour right through until November.

Unlike the snap elections in 1951 when waterfront strikes had crippled the country or 1984 when there was a financial emergency, there is no crisis. Labour has called a snap election for the simple reason that when a party is at 50 per cent in the polls there is only one place to go and that is down. With the surging dollar, the economic outlook for the rest of the year is looking increasingly gloomy. Labour wants to get re-elected before voters realise that they are being governed by a party that would have trouble running a booze-up in a brewery.

As this complaint above indicates, the government's decision to call a snap election to its own advantage just to get itself re-elected is definitely a valid point to raise in the campaign. But nobody seriously suggests that snap elections pose a serious threat to democracy, or constitute a serious flaw in democracy. The power of a government to call a snap election is a feature - not a defect - and it comes with advantages and disadvantages that can be debated forever.

So if it is no big deal, and hugely commonplace, for governments all over the world to have the power to call snap elections (and to use that power) when they are popular just to get themselves re-elected, why is it some kind of abrogation of democratic principles for a substantial minority of the voters to have the same power to call a snap election when the government is unpopular? Maybe one likes snap elections and maybe one doesn't. But a Constitutional recall feature that has nothing whatsoever to do with "impeachment" concepts is surely less of a threat to, or an imperfection in, a democracy than allowing a government to call snap elections.

Are recall elections going to happen a lot in the future in California? No. It's expensive for the proponents of a recall to obtain one, and the recall of Mr. Davis is the first time one has worked in about 100 years - which means something. If a governor is not already deeply unpopular as Mr. Davis was, the recall petition will not usually attract support because sane people prefer spending their time and energy on projects that have a good chance of succeeding - and paying for and dedicating one's time to the recall of a reasonably popular governor is not such a project. Worse for the critics, in rare circumstances discussed below a quick re-recall should be available.

Critics constantly point out that California recall procedure allows for at least the possibility of a candidate being elected by a small minority while the sitting governor draws a large minority. This result is said to be "unfair."

The correct answer to this is: So what? Kenneth Arrow won a Nobel Prize in part for demonstrating that no voting system is "fair" in exactly the way many critics of the California system complain about. Given a few reasonable criteria of "election fairness," Arrow showed that all voting systems violate some such criteria some of the time. A voting system that meets all of the criteria all of the time simply does not exist. Were the results of the California primary system, which allowed Mr. Davis to intervene in the Republican primary to defeat Mr. Riordan, "fair?" So why isn't Lawrence Lessig complaining that the California primary system is "stupidly drafted?"

What is even stranger about the criticisms of the California recall procedure - such as those offered by the hapless but generic Mr. Machat - is that they are hostile to the built-in corrective to the very results considered offensive.

Suppose the recall results had been different. Suppose Mr. Davis had drawn, say 49% of the vote, but had been replaced by somebody drawing, say, 20%. Isn't the possibility of a follow-on recall election a good thing in such a case? Why should we not want the people to have a lot of freedom to recall a candidate who drew only 20% of the vote? Mr. Davis could then run as a replacement for his replacement.

That's not a bad thing. It's not a perfect thing. But there are no perfect election structures, as Mr. Arrow reminds us.

And suppose Mr. Machat's posited petition to recall Mr. Schwarzenegger garners enough signatures. Fine. As noted above, it is unlikely that there will be another recall - because even liberal and Democratic multi-millionaires aren't prone to spending millions of dollars stupidly and without likely effect. That's not how they got rich. But suppose one happens anyway, because Mr. Saban or sme other wealthy Democratic activist has too much wine one night and writes the $10 million check to make it happen, for example. Mr. Schwarzenegger just won with almost 50% of the vote - and if Mr. McClintock had not been in the race, he would have drawn a good deal more of the vote. So, unless things change pretty fast, Mr.Schwarzenegger would probably survive the new recall very well, thank you.

That's one reason Mr. Saban won't be writing such a check any time soon. He'll probably prefer funding another Children's Hospital institute - since that would make sense.

UPDATE: As Mark Steyn notes: Anyway, the good news is that residents of the Golden Reich still have the right to recall their new fuhrer from his bunker in Sacramento...

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