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Published January 4, 2004 | Published
Journal Article Open

The complexity of the California recall election


The October 7, 2003 California Recall Election strained California's direct democracy. In recent California politics there has not been a statewide election conducted on such short notice; county election officials were informed on July 24 that the election would be held on October 7. Nor has California recently seen a ballot with so many candidates running for a single statewide office (see Mueller 1970). Under easy ballot access requirements, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley certified 135 candidates for the official ballot on August 13^1. In the recall, voters cast votes on (1) whether to recall Governor Davis from office, and (2) his possible successor. These two voting decisions were made independent by the federal district court's decision on July 29. The court's decision invalidated a state law requiring a vote on the recall question in order for a vote on the successor election to be counted (Partnoy et al. 2003). The abbreviated election calendar also led to many improvisations, including a dramatically reduced number of precinct poll sites throughout the state and the unprecedented ability of military personnel, their dependents, and civilians living overseas to return their absentee ballots by fax. These problems produced litigation and speculation that substantial problems would mar the election and throw the outcome of both the recall and a possible successor's election into doubt. In the end, the litigation failed to stall the recall election, and the large final vote margins on both the recall question and the successor ballot seemingly overwhelmed Election Day problems. In this paper, we concentrate on some of the problems produced by the complexity of the recall election, but we do not attempt an exhaustive presentation of these problems. We focus on polling place problems on election day, the problems associated with translating the complicated recall election ballot into six languages, how the long ballot influenced voter behavior, and voter difficulties with the ballot measured with survey data. We conclude with a short discussion of the possible impact of these problems on the recall election.

Additional Information

Copyright © 2004 by the American Political Science Association.We thank Conny McCormack (Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder) and Susan Pinkus (director of the Los Angeles Times Poll) for some of the data used in this paper. We also thank the California Institute of Technology and the Carnegie Corporation of New York for their support.

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