Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Help California Vote!

Timothy Sherratt


August 25, 2003

On October 7, California's voters will mark their ballots twice. First, they will decide, by simple majority, whether Governor Gray Davis should be removed from office. Then they will select his successor from a list of one hundred and thirty-five candidates. All it will take to elect an Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, is one vote more than any other candidate receives. That could amount to as little as 10 percent of the votes cast.

California has had Initiative, Referendum, and Recall since 1911. The aim is to inject as much direct democracy as possible into the representative system. In practice, it means the injection of special-interest politics into the voting system.

Direct democracy's impact is far-reaching. When huge slices of the state budget pie are mandated by the initiative process, for example, the state's executive and legislative representatives are forced to operate with one hand tied behind their backs. Responsible government becomes all the more difficult. So voters get angry and opt to recall officials who were given only weak electoral mandates in the first place. Then voters install replacements with even weaker mandates.

In an eerie replay of the 2000 election, Gov. Davis has sued to postpone the election on the grounds that voting machines cannot be readied by October 7. He thus invokes one positive outcome of the Florida fiasco, namely, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). (See:

HAVA provides federal funds for upgrading voting machines by 2004 and requires states to submit plans for spending these funds following comment periods in each state. Draft plans now exist for all fifty states and public comment periods are rapidly coming to a close. At this late stage, HAVA cannot overcome the California recall mess. However, citizens can urge their states to do something constructive to help them avoid California's crisis of confusion. Citizens should ask their states to program into the new voting machines both Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) and Proportional Representation (PR). These two modifications improve on the winner-take-all plurality system because both pay more attention to voters' choices.

Under IRV voters can rank two or more choices of candidates instead of voting for one candidate only. Following the balloting, if no candidate wins a majority, the top two vote-getters advance to an automatic second-round tally. The machine counts second and third choices won by the top two candidates to determine the winner, who thereby earns a real majority victory. In elections with multiple candidates, IRV gives voters a sophisticated level of choice unavailable under the rules of our current plurality system. In a diversified state like California, democracy demands such sophistication.

Proportional Representation (PR) goes one step further. PR awards legislative seats as a percentage of the popular vote from a whole state, thus encouraging multiple parties. Even small parties can count on winning some seats, so they can afford to take clear and distinct positions. PR makes voters' choices clearer. It also improves governing because parties know they must cooperate in order to advance their platforms.

PR with multiple parties would make a recall election as unnecessary as it would be unlikely. Voters would go into the regular election enfranchised by the organized expression of their views. They would demand, and receive, informed debate and strong post-election prospects for responsible governance. They would get a governor with a solid electoral base and cross-party connections.

Now is the time to program new voting machines with better voting systems. Tell your state's officials to act now!

—Timothy Sherratt, Political Studies
    Gordon College


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”