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Two Little Missing Words

Stateside With Rosalea

Two Little Missing Words

By Rosalea Barker

I imagine that anyone who grew up in the area served by the dental school in Wellington will know how it feels to be living in the United States at this particular time. It's like being headed for some dread destination - unemployment, penury, a terrorist attack, an unending stream of bodybags coming back from Iraq - and suddenly the class clowns start acting up down the back of the bus.

The media here in California can't stop talking about how the state is the talk of the nation and the world because of the recall election. Local coverage this week has been done in a self-satirising way, in the spirit of living up to the state's reputation for being whacky. ABC's affiliate even has their arts and entertainment reporter covering the recall. Over on the local CBS station on the afternoon that the big A announced his intention of running, their political reporter seemed to have been caught off guard, and repeatedly referred to the "800 pound gorilla" who'd entered the race through the back door on the back of someone else's money.

That someone else, US Congressman Darrell Issa, who originally footed the bill to collect the signatures required for a recall, then tearfully withdrew from the race - as if anyone was ever going to vote for him anyway. He was used. Shamefully. And what a pay-off he delivered! In a week when Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean is on the cover of both Time and Newsweek, the big news is a Republican candidate in another race altogether.

There's something about those signatures that bothers me. Even a 10-year-old learning the difference between the "equals" sign and the "greater than" sign would be bothered by it. The California constitution clearly says "A petition to recall a statewide officer must be signed by electors equal in number to 12 percent of the last vote for the office, with signatures from each of 5 counties equal in number to 1 percent of the last vote for the office in the county." Furthermore: "The Secretary of State shall maintain a continuous count of the signatures certified to that office."

Well, shave my legs and call me normal (as Norman Wisdom used to say), but don't those requirements taken in tandem make it actually impossible to have a recall election? As at the end of July, the running total of valid signatures on the Secretary of State's site was already *greater* in number than the mandated 12 percent. As for the five counties... which five counties? How would a county know to stop validating signatures at the 1 percent mark in order to be one of the five to meet the constitutional requirement?

How hard would it have been to put the words "at least" in front of "equal in number" when the constitution was being rewritten to allow for a recall election? One can only conclude that the fact those words aren't there points to an intention for "equal in number" to mean "equal in number" - nothing more and nothing less.

Another scary thing is that: "A state officer who is not recalled shall be reimbursed by the State for the officer's recall election expenses legally and personally incurred." So if Gray Davis wins - in the sense of a majority of voters rejecting the recall - we have to pay him. I sincerely hope he's going to say he'll donate the money to charities that look after the people who are hurt by the current budget crisis, which is only being worsened by the huge expense of this election.

One cost that is being somewhat borne by the candidates themselves is the printing of the booklets that go out to every registered voter. At $10 a word for a 250-word maximum, it's a chance to get their message out to millions of voters that a number of smaller parties are taking advantage of. Some are doing so in order to build membership, with an eye to getting on the ballot in the 2004 presidential election.

The election race will be boiled down in the media to a battle between Schwarzenegger and Bustamante (the Democratic Lieutenant Governor of California) - a sort of Austro-Hispanic war. Will the crucial first question on the ballot, which is whether there should be a recall, be overlooked in the coverage? It is certainly the question that Davis himself has said he will focus on. Remember, we don't have public funding here to do the sort of advertising New Zealand saw in the 1992 non-binding referendum to decide a) whether to abandon first-past-the-post and b) (if yes on a) which voting system should replace it.

Getting back to the news coverage of the California recall election and its relationship to the 2004 presidential election, it was interesting that Schwarzenegger chose this week to appear only on nationally broadcast television shows. Is he reluctant to submit himself to questioning on local California stations or is he just the Republicans' entertaining alternative to the coverage the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls are getting?

One encouraging note for folks interested in electoral reform was Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown's Thursday night appearance on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, where he said: "There's something anti-democratic about a process that allows a plurality - 20 percent, 18, 30 percent, to elect the next governor..." Well, the voters of San Francisco thought that too, but tough titty to them if they think this November's mayoral election will use ranked choice voting. Remember, as far back as late December 2002, SF Mayor Willie Brown was predicting this race would come down to a separate run-off election. Even though voters had just mandated otherwise.

No wonder voter turnout in the United States is just abyssmal. If you DO vote, no one takes any notice of it.

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