The Complexity of the California Recall Election
Working Paper No.:  9
Date Published:  2008-11-30


R. Michael Alvarez, California Institute of Technology

Melanie Goodrich, California Institute of Technology

Thad E. Hall, The Century Foundation

D. Roderick Kiewiet, California Institute of Technology

Sarah M. Sled, Massachusetts Institute of Technology 


The October 7, 2003 California Recall Election strained California’s direct democracy. In recent California politics there has not been a statewide election conducted on such short notice; county election officials were informed on July 24 that the election would be held on October 7. Nor has California recently seen a ballot with so many candidates running for a single statewide office. With easy ballot access requirements, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley certified 135 candidates for the official ballot on August 13.

In the recall, voters cast votes on (1) whether to recall Governor Davis from office, and (2) his possible successor. These two voting decisions were made independent by the federal district court’s decision on July 29. The court’s decision invalidated a state law requiring a vote on the recall question in order for a vote on the successor election to be counted. The abbreviated election calendar also led to many improvisions, including a dramatically reduced number of precinct poll sites throughout the state and the unprecedented ability of military personnel and their dependents, and civilians living overseas, to return their absentee ballots by
fax. These problems produced litigation and speculation that substantial problems would mar the election and throw the outcome of both the recall and a possible successor’s election into doubt. In the end, the litigation failed to stall the recall election, and the large final vote margins on both the recall question and the successor ballot overwhelmed election day problems. In this paper, we concentrate on some of the problems produced by the complexity of the recall election, but we do not attempt an exhaustive presentation of these problems. We focus on polling place problems on election day, the problems associated with translating the complicated recall election ballot into six languages, how the long ballot influenced voter behavior (the “vertical proximity” effect), and voter difficulties with the ballot measured with survey data. We conclude with a short discussion of the possible impact of these problems on the recall election.


The Complexity of the California Recall Election  (Size: 174 KB)