Internet Puts the ‘e’ in Recall
“We live in a remarkable moment when technology is turning the impossible into the commonplace. Just as computers and the Internet have transformed the way we shop, communicate and work, it is a matter of time before these innovations transform the way we govern ourselves....”
Who was that techno-enthusiast? California Gov. Gray Davis, writing in a newspaper article he co-authored with New York Gov. George Pataki in 2000. The governors were hopeful that citizens could be empowered to vote electronically one day.
But when the power of a technology is unleashed, its effects are unpredictable. Davis is finding that out as the technology he championed -- and defended against taxation and other burdens -- is being harnessed in an effort to remove him from office.
What would have only recently seemed “the impossible” to Davis -- that he would be the first governor in the United States in three generations recalled from office -- has very quickly become a distinct possibility. How did this happen?
There are those who think Davis is being hoist with his own petard. The Democratic governor poured millions of dollars into the last Republican primary to defeat then-Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who Davis believed was his strongest potential opponent.
Peter Schrag, author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future,” recently wrote that in doing so, Davis contributed to “the anything-goes atmosphere” in California political life these days, an atmosphere that now threatens to overwhelm the unpopular governor.
But there’s more to it than that. California has long been known for its affection for direct democratic politics, especially the initiative process. There have been 31 attempts to recall California governors, but so far none has gotten the requisite number of valid signatures to make it to the ballot -- 12% of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election. But combine direct democracy with technology and the process gets a goose.
For instance, there is a proliferation of Web sites, such as www.RescueCalifornia.com, that makes the once-arduous process of signature gathering a lot easier.
At www.RecallGrayDavis.com, the Web site for the recall organization started by former California Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian, it’s possible to download and fill out the petition form in a matter of seconds. You have to mail it in, but it still means that if you’re listening to the radio at work and another story about the California budget crisis airs, you no longer need to vent your civic frustration at the water cooler. Instead, log on and turn your anger into action.
Pat Knepley, a California resident, recently wrote to the Los Angeles Times, proudly claiming that she had done just that: “I signed the recall petition against Davis. I took the initiative to download it through my computer because I am so frustrated with what he is doing and has done to our state.”
Political revolutionaries, especially of the armchair variety, never had it so good.
Or consider how new technology can steamroll the traditional dynamic between business and politics.
The California Business Roundtable, made up of California chief executives, came out against the recall effort, believing the tumult would not be good for business. But in short order, the Roundtable and its member businesses such as Safeway and Southern California Edison were inundated with complaints about their position.
“I’ve gotten besieged with e-mails,” Doug Kline of San Diego-based Sempra Energy told The Times. “Most of them say something like, ‘We can’t believe you’ve opposed the recall of Gray Davis. He’s hurting small businesses.’ ”
Not that long ago, establishment groups like the Roundtable would have spoken for business interests in California. But with e-mail and the Internet, the monopoly on message has been broken.
Moreover, the Internet creates an echo-chamber effect, amplifying political noise across various forms of media. Most talk-radio shows now have an online component, and they use their Web sites as repositories to get information to their fans and listeners. Fans of the “John and Ken Show” can go to www.JohnandKen.com, where they’ll be fed news and information of the recall.
And Web logs -- “blogs” -- the increasingly popular online diaries, are fast becoming another recall tool. PrestoPundit.com and similar sites have a small audience, but they have outsized influence because journalists and news junkies spend a considerable amount of time searching blogs for story ideas, commentary and political dish. When an issue catches fire in the blogosphere, it can boost the buzz and prolong the life cycle of a story. Just ask Trent Lott.
Of course, it helps that the recall effort has that traditional political power source: tons of money. And that Davis has presided over terrible economic times.
But no one doubts that technology has greased the process. Back in February, when the idea was first floated, most folks thought a recall would be a joke. Four months later, most observers think that enough citizens will weigh in just in time to yield the magic number -- 897,158 valid signatures -- and force a vote. And the recall forces attribute 20% of the response to e-mail.
But although technology can generate wide support and signatures, that doesn’t necessarily translate into that other kind of political action: voting.
Downloading a form and putting a stamp on it are one thing; it’s another thing entirely to motivate citizens to go to the polls. And Davis’ enemies should know that actual voter mobilization plays right into the governor’s political strengths. He and his allies are launching a $4-million campaign to fight back.
But no matter what happens with the recall effort, Davis is probably rethinking his enthusiasm for the Internet as a political tool, even if he was right. It’s on the verge of transforming the way Californians govern themselves.