California Recall Lessons

The California recall dominated national and state politics in the early fall, culminating in voters rejecting Gov. Gray Davis in favor of movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger. The election truly was historic — Davis is only the second governor in the nation’s history to be recalled — and the fact that voters handled such a large field of candidates with general ease shows that they are ready to handle more choices than some observers think.

But as the dust clears, one sobering reality is that some 40% of California’s eligible voters and only 57% of registered voters cast a vote — hardly the surging tidal wave conveyed by pundits and pollsters immediately following the recall. Turnout was the second lowest in California gubernatorial history, not far ahead of the sagging turnout when Gray Davis was reelected in 2002. Long lines at some polls were due to the number of polling places being drastically reduced – from 5,400 to 1,800 in Los Angeles County, for example – rather than a huge influx of voters.

Thus the hype of a celebrity candidate and a “mad as hell” electorate did not motivate millions of potential voters – just as this November’s elections for governor and mayor in many states did not spur even half of eligible adults to the polls. We still must confront the complicated roots of historic low turnout, both in California and the United States.

Note further that, just like Gray Davis before him, Schwarzenegger won with less than a 50 percent majority of the vote. Schwarzenegger joins 24 other governors around the country who won a gubernatorial election with fewer than half the votes — meaning that theoretically they may be in office only by the fluke of the true majority splitting its vote among several “spoiler” candidates.

Our Center’s new report “Non-Majority Winners in American Elections” (see shows that since 1988, a majority of states have awarded their electoral college votes to presidential candidates who won less than 50% of the vote in that state — including 49 out of 50 states in 1992. In fact, no president has won a majority of the popular vote since 1988. More U.S. Senate seats also were won by non-majority winners in the 1990s than had occurred since the 1930s. Increasingly voters feel less loyalty to the major parties and are willing to vote for a third party or independent candidate.

Electing majority winners and increasing voter turnout are both crucial democratic goals, yet too often our current methods fail both of these tests. Our 18th-century electoral methods are not designed to accommodate more than two candidates, and so credible independent candidates are dismissed as mere spoilers. Voting for your favorite candidate can contribute directly to the election of your least favorite, and this in turn has a dampening effect on voter turnout.

To elect majority winners, several southern states and many cities hold two-round runoffs in which the top two finishers face-off in a second election. While runoffs ensure that the winner in the second election has a majority of the votes cast, often it comes at the expense of lower voter turnout in the second election. So we accomplish one democratic goal – majority winners – but undermine the goal of higher turnout.

There is a way to have our cake and eat it too – to both elect majority winners and encourage voter participation. It’s called instant runoff voting (IRV). IRV achieves the goal of a runoff election — majority winners — without the cost and hassle of a second election. Voters select their favorite candidate, and then indicate their runoff choices by ranking their candidates: 1, 2 and 3. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, she or he is declared the winner. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a runoff round of counting occurs immediately using voters “runoff” rankings. Your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the race. Runoff rounds continue until there is a majority winner.

IRV determines a true majority winner in one election and banishes the spoiler concept. In 2000, those liberals who liked Ralph Nader but worried about George Bush could have ranked Nader first and Al Gore second. Rather than contributing to Gore’s defeat, Nader could have stimulated debate and mobilized more voters.

IRV also decreases the incentives for negative campaigning that occur in the head-to-head combat of an election. Candidates have incentive to court the supporters of other candidates, asking for their second or third rankings. Successful candidates usually win by building coalitions, not by tearing down their opponents.

IRV better fulfills both worthwhile democratic goals: electing majority winners, and encouraging voter participation. It liberates voters to choose the candidates they really like instead of the “lesser of two evils,” which in turn will encourage voters to participate. Those are important lessons to learn from the roller coaster of the California recall.

Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy ( and author of “Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics” (, which is now available in paperback. Rob Richie is executive director of the Center. The Center is the lead organizer of the major “Claim Democracy” conference in Washington, D.C. on November 22-23 (see

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