The 2003 California gubernatorial recall election was a special election permitted under California state law. It resulted in voters replacing incumbent Democratic Governor Gray Davis with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. The recall effort spanned the latter half of 2003. Other California governors, including Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, and Pete Wilson, had faced recall attempts, but these attempts were unsuccessful.
After several legal as well as 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. (The first was North Dakota's 1921 recall of Lynn Frazier. A common misconception is that Arizona governor Evan Mecham was recalled in 1988. However, he was impeached before this qualified recall election could occur.) California is one of 18 states that allows recalls.
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 for 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 two 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.
Under California law, any elected official may be the target of a recall campaign. To trigger a recall election, proponents of the recall must gather a certain number of signatures from registered voters within a certain time period. The number of signatures statewide must equal 12% of the number of votes cast in the previous election for that office. For the 2003 recall election, that meant a minimum of 897,156 signatures, based on the November 2002 statewide elections, but 1.2 million were needed to ensure that there were enough valid signatures.
The effort to recall Gray Davis began with Republicans Ted Costa, Mark Abernathy, and Howard Kaloogian, who filed their petition with the California Secretary of State and started gathering signatures. The effort was not taken seriously, until Rep. Darrell Issa, who hoped to run as a replacement candidate for governor, donated $2 million towards the effort. This infusion of money allowed Costa and Kaloogian to step up their efforts. Eventually, proponents gathered about 1.6 million signatures, of which 1,356,408 were certified as valid.
Under most circumstances in which a recall campaign against a statewide elected official has gathered the required number of signatures, the governor is required to schedule a special election for the recall vote. If the recall campaign qualified less than 180 days prior to the next regularly-scheduled election, then the recall becomes part of that regularly-scheduled election. In the case of a recall against the governor, the responsibility for scheduling a special election falls on the lieutenant governor, who in 2003 was Cruz Bustamante.
The political climate was largely shaped by the then-recent and costly California electricity crisis of the early 2000s, in which many saw their monthly energy bills triple in cost.
The public, due to the complex nature of the energy crisis, held Davis partly responsible. General speculation regarding the factors influencing the recall's outcome continues to center on the idea that Californians simply voted for a "change" —because Davis had mismanaged the events leading up to the energy crisis, e.g., Davis had not fought more vigorously for Californians against the energy fraud nor had he pushed for legislative or emergency executive action soon enough; because Davis had signed deals agreeing to pay energy companies fixed yet inflated prices for years to come based on those paid during the crisis; and/or because the fraudulent corporations had prevailed, and a corporate-friendly Republican governor could politically shield California from further corporate fraud. Others speculated that the corporations involved sought not only profit, but were acting in concert with Republican political allies to cause political damage to the nationally influential Democratic governor. Still others, such as Arianna Huffington, argued that Davis' persistent fundraising and campaign contributions from various companies, including energy companies, made him unable to confront his contributors. Davis accepted $2,000,000 from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association and used his political connections to pass an estimated $5,000,000,000 raise for them over the upcoming years. This led many people throughout California to believe Davis was guilty of corruption even if he did not meet the standard necessary for prosecution.
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