Thursday, 21 August 2003

Recalls as votes of no confidence

A number of people, including a healthy chunk on the right (most notably political commentator and Washington Post columnist George Will), don’t particularly care for the California recall election, considering it (variously) anti-democratic, unfair, or inconsistent with the will of the Founders. (Matthew at A Fearful Symmetry has rescinded his previous opposition in this particular instance due to Gray Davis’ general pissiness.)

The last point is fairly easily dealt with; unlike in gubernatorial elections, the president is indirectly elected via the Electoral College. The Electoral College was originally designed as sort of a half-way house between parliamentary democracy and direct election: like in a parliamentary system, the executive (in the parliamentary case, usually the prime minister) would be indirectly elected by the electorate. However, the Electoral College only does two things—electing the president and vice president—and then they go home; in a parliamentary system, the same body remains in office to approve, amend, or reject legislation proposed by the executive, and possibly—eventually—to remove the executive from office if it no longer reflects the preferences of the legislature. This removal, common to all parliamentary systems, is known as a vote of no confidence; if it succeeds, the executive must resign and be replaced, or new elections for a new legislature (and thence a new executive) are called.

The vote of no confidence is one way in which proponents of parliamentary democracy believe it leads to more stable government (the mirror image of no confidence is the power of the executive to dissolve parliament and call for new elections). So, how would we bring this benefit into a presidential system* without undermining the separation of powers? Obviously, a traditional vote of no confidence is out, as it would allow the legislature to remove the executive at will, and allowing the executive to dissolve the legislature would have similar problems.

The obvious solution is to allow the people who elected the executive and the legislature a “vote of no confidence” of their own. And, essentially, this is what the recall is: it allows the electorate to remove an executive or member of the legislature who is no longer acting consistently with their preferences. Since there is no continuous assembly of the electorate, and we don’t schedule election days on a regular basis with no expectation of some election taking place, the recall petition procedure allows the electorate to schedule a recall election if one is needed. And, since presidential systems don’t work well when there is no executive, there is a simultaneous election of a replacement executive (in parliamentary terms, it is a constructive vote of no-confidence). This system allows the electorate to work around deadlock between the legislature and executive, while at the same time not hurting the formal separation of powers between the executive and legislature (which would be a problem if we gave similar powers to either branch).

Perhaps most importantly, though, the recall provision substantially mitigates the problem of “lame duck” politicians who are subject to term limits. While the empirical evidence of “shirking” is decidedly mixed, the threat of a recall election may motivate term-limited single-minded seekers of reelection to behave more consistently with the preferences of the people who elected them, which is surely an outcome favored by proponents of the “delegate” model of representative democracy (as opposed to the Burkean “trustee” model).

To be sure, there is some fiddling at the margins that may be worthwhile. Some have suggested that the signature requirement for both setting a recall election and qualification for the ballot is too low, although at least in the former case it seems like getting a million registered voters to actually sign a petition is a rather daunting task to begin with; few, if any, organized interests in the state can claim that many members. And it might be reasonable to require some sort of run-off if the plurality winner doesn’t have a clear margin above the second-placed challenger (majority runoff is one possibility, but a threshold of 45% has also been suggested in the political science literature, and Shugart and Carey suggest the use of what they describe as the “double-complement rule” in Presidents and Assemblies), or to use an alternate balloting system like approval or Condorcet voting. But generally speaking, the recall provision is sound and there is no good reason why it should not be adopted elsewhere—it’s one of the few “progressivist” reforms that actually is good for democracy.

* There is no good term for the system of governance employed in the 50 states and a number of territories (as well as the subnational governments of other presidential democracies such as Brazil), although with minor variations (most notably, in the composition of the executive, the length of the terms, and the relative power of the three branches of government) it is consistent with the presidential system employed at the federal level in the United States and other democracies. So, for the purposes of this discussion, a “presidential system” is one in which the legislature and executive are separately elected by the people for fixed terms of office and with formal separation of powers between the executive and legislature—regardless of the actual name given to the executive.