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2003 California recall
The 2003 California recall was a special election permitted under California law. It resulted in voters replacing sitting Democratic Governor Gray Davis with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. The recall effort spanned the summer and fall of 2003.
After several legal and procedural efforts failed to stop it, California's first-ever gubernatorial recall election was held on October 7, and the results were certified on November 14, 2003, making Davis the first governor recalled in the history of California, and just the second in U.S. history.
For detailed election results, see results of the 2003 California recall.
Arguments about the recall drive
Backers of the recall effort cited Gray Davis's alleged "lack of leadership" combined with California's weakened and hurt economy. According to the circulated petition:
- [Governor Davis's actions were a] "gross mismanagement of California Finances by overspending taxpayers' money, threatening public safety by cutting funds to local governments, failing to account for the exorbitant cost of the energy fiasco, and failing in general to deal with the state's major problems until they get to the crisis stage."
Opponents of the recall said the situation was more complicated, for several reasons.
Firstly the entire United States and many of its economic trading partners had been in economic recession. California was hit harder than other states at the end of the speculative bubble known as the "dot-com boom" — from 1996 to 2000 — when Silicon Valley was the center of the internet economy . California state expenditures soared when the government was flush with revenues. Some Californians blamed Davis and the state legislature for continuing to spend heavily while revenues dried up, ultimately leading to record deficits.
Secondly, the California electricity crisis of 2000-2001 caused great financial damage to the state of California. There is much consternation among the citizens of California regarding Davis' handling of the crisis; see that article for more. The legal issues still were not resolved in time to alleviate California's dire need for electricity, and the state instituted "rolling blackouts" and in some cases instituted penalties for excess energy use. In the recall campaign, Republicans and others opposed to Davis's governance sometimes charge that Davis "did not respond properly" to the crisis. In fact most economists disagree, believing that Davis could do little else-- and anyone in the Governor's office would have had to capitulate as Davis did, in the absence of Federal help. Federal assistance from the Bush administration was flatly rejected as "California's problem." Still, subsequent revelations of corporate accounting scandals and market manipulation by some Texas-based energy companies did little to quiet the criticism of Davis' handling of the crisis. See California electricity crisis for more discussion.
Furthermore, there is a high correlation between the success of the recall signature gathering effort and the inability for the California Legislature and the governor to agree on a new state budget. The new year's California budget was finally passed on August 1, 2003, several days after the recall was confirmed, and many believe the deadlock involved in the budget negotiations added fuel to the fire driving the recall effort. Some were further antagonized by the fact that the budget ultimately passed relied on loans and borrowing - which they said amounted to not fixing California's budget problems at all.
Additionally, many Republicans believe that California's taxes are too high, discouraging investment and driving businesses out of the state. Many candidates also criticized Davis' immigration policy, and were particularly enraged by Davis's seeming support of the court ruling striking down most of Proposition 187 as unconstitutional and his more recent support for issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
A perfect storm?
Many other California governors have faced recall attempts and many others have governed through tough economic circumstances, but none ever faced a special recall election until Davis. Some political experts believe a "perfect storm" of circumstances led to the success of the recall drive.
Davis swept into the governor's office in 1998 in a landslide victory and a 60% approval rating as California's economy roared to new heights during the dot-com boom. Davis took his mandate from the voters and sought out a centrist position politically, refusing some demands from labor unions and teachers' organizations on the left. The Democratic Davis, already disliked by Republicans, began losing favor among members of his own party. Nevertheless, Davis' approval ratings remained above 50%.
When the California electricity crisis slammed the state in 2001, Davis was blasted for his slow and ineffective response. His approval rating dropped into the 30s and it never recovered. When the energy crisis settled down, Davis' administration was hit with a fund-raising scandal. California had a $95 million contract with Oracle Corporation that was found to be unnecessary and overpriced by the state auditor. Three of Davis' aides were fired or resigned after it was revealed that the governor's technology adviser accepted a $25,000 campaign contribution shortly after the contract was signed. The money was returned, but the scandal fueled close scrutiny of Davis' fundraising for his 2002 re-election bid.
The intense criticism caused Davis and his opponent Republican Bill Simon to run one of the most negative campaigns in recent state history. The attacks on both sides turned off voters and suppressed turnout and Davis ultimately won with 47% of the vote as the "lesser of two evils." The suppressed turnout had the effect of lowering the threshold for the 2003 recall petition to qualify.
On December 18, 2002, just over a month after being reelected, Davis announced that California would face a record budget deficit possibly as high as $35 billion, a forecast $13.7 billion higher than one a month earlier. The number was finally estimated to be $38.2 billion, more than all 49 other states' deficits combined. Already suffering from low approval ratings, Davis's numbers hit historic lows in April 2003 with 24% approval and 65% disapproval according to the California Field Poll . Davis was almost universally disliked by both Republicans and Democrats in the state and a recall push was nigh.
In summary, Davis alienated members of both political parties and was charged with ineffective leadership during the 2001 energy crisis and 2003 budget deficit. Combined with a personality sometimes described as "wooden" and "stiff" and some dubious campaign contributions, Davis faced a recall petition drive despite the lack of any apparent misbehavior or criminal activity.
On February 5, 2003, anti-tax crusader Ted Costa announced a plan to start a petition drive to recall Davis. Several committees were formed to collect signatures, but the Recall Gray Davis Committee created by conservative businessman Howard Kaloogian was the only one authorized by the state to submit signatures.
By law, the committee had to collect signatures from registered California voters amounting to 12% of the number of Californians who voted in the previous gubernatorial election (November 2002) for the special recall vote to take place. The organization was given the go-ahead to collect signatures on March 25, 2003. Organizers had 160 days to collect signatures. Specifically, they had to collect at least 897,158 valid signatures from registered voters by September 2, 2003.
The recall movement began slowly, largely relying on talk radio, a website, cooperative e-mail, word-of-mouth, and grassroots campaigning to drive the signature gathering. Davis derided the effort as "partisan mischief" by "a handful of right-wing politicians" and called the proponents "losers." Nevertheless, by mid-May recall proponents said they had gathered 300,000 signatures. They sought to gather the necessary signatures by July in order to get the special election in the fall of 2003 instead of March 2004 during the Democratic presidential primary election, when Democratic Party turnout would presumably be higher. The effort continued to gather signatures, but the recall was far from a sure thing and the proponents were short on cash to promote their cause.
The movement took off when wealthy U.S. Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican representing San Diego, California, announced on May 6 that he would use his personal money to push the effort. All told, he contributed $1.7 million of his own money to finance advertisements and professional signature-gatherers. With the movement accelerated, the recall effort began to make national news and soon appeared to be almost a sure thing. The only question was whether signatures would be collected quickly enough to force the special election to take place in late 2003 rather than in March 2004.
The recall committee's e-mail claimed that California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley, belonging to the same party as the Governor, resisted certification of the recall signatures as long as possible. By mid-May, the recall organization was calling for funds to begin a lawsuit against the secretary, and publicly considered a separate recall effort for the secretary of state (also an elected official in California).
However, by July 23, 2003, recall advocates turned in over 110% of the required signatures, and the Secretary of State announced that the signatures had been certified and a recall election would take place. Proponents had set a goal of 1.2 million to provide a buffer in case of invalid signatures. In the end, there were 1,363,411 valid signatures out of 1,660,245 collected. The next day lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante announced that Davis would face a recall election on October 7. California's Constitution requires that a recall election be held within 80 days of the date the recall petition is certified, or within 180 days if a regularly scheduled statewide election comes within that time. Had the petition been certified at the deadline of September 2, the election would have been held in March 2004, the next scheduled statewide election. Instead, Bustamante chose a date 76 days from the date of certification, October 7th. This was to be the second gubernatorial recall election in the United States history and the first in the history of California.
Later that month, the committee's periodic e-mail said that state funds were being illegally used to fight the recall effort. In particular, four million dollars of California State University funds were said to have been funded to educate union members in "Workers Against Recall" or "WAR." Recall supporters organized an authorized (licensed by local police) march opposite a hotel hosting a WAR seminar on August 15, 2003. News video showed a dozen union members with WAR t-shirts crossing the street and assaulting marchers, sending one to a hospital.
On July 29, 2003, Federal judge Barry Moskowitz ruled section 11382 of the California election code unconstitutional. The provision required that a voter must first cast a ballot for or against recall before voting for a candidate for governor. The judge ruled that a voter could abstain in the recall election and still vote for a candidate. 
In August, a federal judge in San Jose announced that he was considering issuing an order postponing the recall election. Activists in Monterey County had filed suit, claiming that Monterey County, and other counties of California affected by the Voting Rights Act were violating the act by announcing that, because of budgetary constraints, they were planning on hiring fewer Spanish-speaking poll watchers, and were going to cut back by almost half the number of polling places. On September 5, a three-member panel of federal judges ruled that the county's election plans did not constitute a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.
In addition, another lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), claiming that the use of the "hanging chad" style punch-card ballots still in use in six California counties (Los Angeles, Mendocino, Sacramento, San Diego, Santa Clara, and Solano) were in violation of fair election laws. U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson in Los Angeles ruled on August 20 that the election would not be delayed because of the punch-card ballots. The ruling was appealed against and the appeal heard by three judges in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and on September 15 the judges issued a unanimous ruling postponing the recall election until March 2004 on the grounds that the existence of allegedly obsolete voting equipment in some counties violated equal protection, thus overruling the lower district court which had rejected this argument.
Recall proponents questioned why punch-card ballots were adequate enough to elect Governor Davis, but were not good enough to recall him. Proponents planned to appeal the postponement to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, an 11-judge panel, also from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals quickly gathered to rehear the controversial case. On the morning of September 23, the panel reversed the three-judge ruling in a unanimous decision, arguing that the concerns about the punch-card ballots were outweighed by the harm that would be done by postponing the election.
Further legal appeals were discussed but did not occur. The ACLU announced it would not make an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Davis was widely quoted in the press as saying "Let's just get it over with." Thus the election proceeded as planned on October 7.
The ballot consisted of two questions; voters could vote on one or the other, or on both. The first question asked whether Gray Davis should be recalled. It was a simple yes/no question, and if a majority voted "no", then the second question would become irrelevant and Gray Davis would remain California governor. If a majority voted "yes", then Davis would be removed from office once the vote was certified, and the second question would determine his successor. Voters had to choose one candidate from a long list of 135 candidates. Voters who voted against recalling Gray Davis could still vote for a candidate to replace him in case the recall vote succeeded. The candidate receiving the most votes (a plurality) would then become the next governor of California. (It had previously been determined that Davis could not run as a candidate to succeed himself.) Certification by the Secretary of State would require completion within 39 days of the election, and history indicated that it could require that entire time frame to certify the statewide election results. Once the results were certified, a newly-elected governor would have to be sworn into office within 10 days.
Those Californians wishing to run for governor were given until August 9 to file. The requirements to run were relatively low and attracted a number of interesting and strange candidates. A California citizen needed only to gather 65 signatures from their own party and pay a nonrefundable $3,500 fee to become a candidate, or "in lieu" of the fee collect up to 10,000 signatures from any party, the fee being prorated by the fraction of 10,000 valid signatures the candidate filed. No candidate in fact collected more than a handful of signatures-in-lieu, so that all paid almost the entire fee. In addition, however, candidates from recognized third parties were allowed on the ballot with no fee if they could collect 150 signatures from their own party.
The low requirements attracted many "average joes" with no political experience to file as well as several celebrity candidates. Many prominent potential candidates chose not to run. These included Democratic U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, widely regarded as the most popular statewide office-holding Democrat in California, who cited her own experience with a recall drive while she was mayor of San Francisco. Darrell Issa, who bankrolled the recall effort and said he would run for governor, abruptly dropped out of the race on August 7 among accusations that he had bankrolled the recall effort solely to get himself into office. Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger (a fellow Republican) agreed that only one of them would run; when Schwarzenegger announced on The Tonight Show that he would be a candidate, Riordan dropped out of the race. State Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi (a Democrat) announced on August 7 that he would be a candidate for governor. However, just two days later and only hours before the deadline to file, he announced "I will not engage in this election as a candidate," adding, "this recall election has become a circus." Garamendi had been under tremendous pressure to drop out from fellow Democrats who feared a split of the Democratic vote between him and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante should the recall succeed.
On September 3, five top candidatesindependent Arianna Huffington, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, Republican State Senator Tom McClintock, and former baseball commissioner Peter Ueberrothparticipated in a live television debate. Noticeably absent was Arnold Schwarzenegger (as he has repeatedly stated that he would not participate in such events until later in the election cycle), who opponents charged was not adequately prepared.  Prior to this first debate, Gov. Davis spent 30 minutes answering questions from a panel of journalists and voters.
Several candidates who would still be listed on the ballot dropped out of the campaign before the October 7 election. On August 23, Republican Bill Simon (the 2002 party nominee) announced he was dropping out. He said, "There are too many Republicans in this race and the people of our state simply cannot risk a continuation of the Gray Davis legacy." Simon did not endorse any candidates at the time, but several weeks later he endorsed front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger, as did Darrell Issa, who had not filed for the race. On September 9, former MLB commissioner and Los Angeles Olympic Committee President Peter Ueberroth withdrew his candidacy in the recall election.
On September 24, the remaining top five candidates (Schwarzenegger, Bustamante, Huffington, McClintock, and Camejo) gathered in the University Ballroom at California State University, Sacramento, for a live televised debate  that resembled the red-carpet premiere of a movie in Hollywood. Schwarzenegger's marquee name had attracted large crowds, a carnival atmosphere, and an army of five hundred credentialed media and paparazzi from around the world , including reporters and crews from infotainment shows such as Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, Extra, and the E! Channel.
The aftermath of the debate was swift. On September 30, author Arianna Huffington withdrew her candidacy on the Larry King television program and announced that she was opposing the recall entirely in light of Arnold Schwarzenegger's surge in the polls. Apparently in response to her withdrawal, Cruz Bustamante endorsed her plan for public financing of election campaigns, an intended anti-corruption measure.
On October 7 the recall election was held, and voters decisively voted to recall Davis and to elect Schwarzenegger as his replacement. At 10 p.m. local time, Davis conceded that he had lost to Schwarzenegger, saying, "We've had a lot of good nights over the last 20 years, but tonight the people did decide that it's time for someone else to serve, and I accept their judgment." About 40 minutes later, in his acceptance speech, Schwarzenegger said, "Today California has given me the greatest gift of all: You've given me your trust by voting for me. I will do everything I can to live up to that trust. I will not fail you."
Public opinion was divided on the recall with many passionately-held positions on both sides of the recall election. Californians were fairly united in their disapproval of Governor Davis's handling of the state with his approval numbers in the mid-20's. On the question of whether he should be recalled, Californians were more divided, but polls in the weeks leading up to the election consistently showed that a majority would vote to remove him.
Polls also showed that the two leading candidates, Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, and Hollywood actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, were neck and neck with about 25-35% of the vote each, and Bustamante with a slight lead in most polls. Republican state senator Tom McClintock also polled in the double-digits. Remaining candidates polled in the low single digits. Polls in the final week leading up to the election showed support for Davis slipping and support for Schwarzenegger growing.
Many observers outside California, and some members of the press, consistently called the recall "chaos" and "madness" as well as a "circus" and "nightmare." With the candidacies of a few celebrities and many regular Californians, the entire affair became a joke to some (there were tongue-in-cheek references to Total Recall) and an "only in California" event. Nevertheless, most Californians took the recall seriously with the future of the Governor's office at stake. The election drew in many Californians who had never voted before and voter registration increased.
California recall history
The recall process became available to Californians in 1911 by the Progressive Era reforms that spread across the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The ability to recall elected officials came along with the initiative and referendum processes. The movement in California was spearheaded by Republican then-Governor Hiram Johnson, a reformist, who called the recall process a "precautionary measure by which a recalcitrant official can be removed." No illegality has to be committed by politicians in order them to be recalled. If an elected official commits a crime while in office, the state legislature can hold impeachment trials. For a recall, only the will of the people is necessary to remove an official. 
Before the successful recall of Gray Davis, no California statewide official had ever been recalled, though there had been 117 previous attempts. Only seven of those even made it onto the ballot, all for state legislators. Every governor since Ronald Reagan in 1968 has been subject to a recall effort, but Gray Davis was the first governor whose opponents gathered the necessary signatures to qualify for a special election. Gray Davis also faced a recall petition in 1999, but that effort failed to gain enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. The 1999 recall effort was prompted by several actions taken by Gray Davis, including: Davis's preventing the enactment of Proposition 187, by keeping it from being appealed to the US Supreme Court; also, Davis signed 2 new highly restrictive gun-control laws. (Note: Nearly all provisions of Prop. 187 were declared unconstitutional by the Federal District Court in Los Angeles, including the provision revoking U.S. citizenship for American-born children of illegal immigrants.)
Eighteen states allow the recall of state officials, but with Davis's recall, only two governors have ever been successfully recalled. The other occurred in 1921 when North Dakota's Lynn J. Frazier was recalled over a dispute about state-owned industries, and was replaced by Ragnvald A. Nestos. For more information about the 1921 North Dakota Recall, please see 1921 North Dakota recall. Gray Davis was the first California governor subject to a special recall election and the first to be successfully recalled.
Notable recall candidates
The October 7 recall election had many declared candidates, several of whom are prominent celebrities. In total, there were 135 candidates who qualified for the ballot in this election (see results of the 2003 California recall for a complete list), including:
- Tom McClintock, state Senator
- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hollywood actor
- Bill Simon, businessman, 2002 GOP candidate for governor (withdrew from race August 23, 2003)
- Peter Ueberroth, former MLB commissioner and president of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games organizing committee (withdrew from race September 9, 2003)
- Cruz Bustamante, lieutenant governor
- Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine
- Georgina Russell , Software Engineer, grabbed the media spotlight with her innovative campaign
- Angelyne, self-made billboard celebrity
- Gary Coleman, actor
- Arianna Huffington, columnist and author (withdrew from race September 30, 2003)
- Leo Gallagher, comedian
- Kurt E. "Tachikaze" Rightmyer, Sumo wrestler
- Mary "Mary Carey" Cook, Erotic actress
The voters of California decided to recall governor Gray Davis by a margin of 55.4% in favor to 44.6% against. Voters elected Arnold Schwarzenegger to become Davis's replacement by a plurality of 48.6% to runner-up Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante's 31.5%.
For a complete listing of votes, see results of the 2003 California recall.
- Summary of returns
- Statewide Special Election Results
- Recall information from CA Secretary of State
- News article with historical information
- Another article with recall history
- Article 2 of the California state constitution governs initiatives, referenda, and recall
- California Elections Code, ss. 11381 - 11386 govern the conduct of recall elections
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