2003’s Recall in Context

California gained nationwide attention in 2003 when a citizen initiative led to the successful recall of sitting Governor Gray Davis. Davis had similarly survived a 1999 effort to remove him from office after the effort lacked the needed signatures. However, four years later the political winds had shifted. The recall supporters needed about 900 thousand valid signatures in order to get the effort to come to a vote. Instead, they received over 1.3 million to get the initiative on the ballot in October 2003.

Davis’ mismanagement of the state’s energy crisis and economic downturn made him a prime target. The state’s deficit turned to unprecedented levels and the Governor’s hold on the state purse appeared to be slipping. Perhaps the final straw for many was the tripling of the state motor vehicle registration fee, which burdened hundreds of thousands of drivers. Davis’ negativity in the 2002 election led it to be surprisingly close and turnout suppressed to such a level that collecting the signatures needed for the effort was much easier.

Before 2003, there had not been a recall election regarding a governor since 1921 in North Dakota. The effort highlighted the role of citizen participation in statewide government and further solidified the state’s already strong populist leanings. Nineteen states allow for recall elections for governors, and only thee efforts have ever made the ballot. The provisions for garnering the signatures needed for such an effort is laid out in California Elections Code ยงยง 11020, 11041(a)(2).

Arnold Schwarzenegger was among the over 100 candidates that made the ballot. Davis was removed with over 55% of the votes. Schwarzenegger gained just under a majority to edge out the other candidates and become California’s 38th Governor. The power of the electorate was clearly shown in the effort, which remains a potent tool on the books.