Arizona Needs to Change its Recall Election Laws to Stop Gaming of the System

Controversy remains over the Russell Pearce recall election in Arizona.  The claim is that the embattled Senate leader’s campaign has recruited a sham candidate with an Hispanic surname—Olivia Cortes—to run in a way to help Pearce stay in office.  To understand how a sham candidate can help, consider this description of the election:

Pearce didn’t choose the option of resigning from office to avoid facing a recall election, so his name automatically goes on the ballot. He can submit a statement that also would appear on the ballot. He and any other candidates appear on the ballot without a listing of partisan affiliation. Any challenger or challengers must submit petition signatures from at least 621 voters registered in the legislative district. There is no primary, and the candidate winning the most votes wins. Charter-school executive Jerry Lewis has said he’s been encouraged to run and that he’ll make an announcement soon. The election is canceled if there’s no opponent on the ballot to face Pearce.

This kind of system just encourages a gaming of the system through the use of sham candidates (whether Ms. Cortes is such a candidate i do not know).  All that the official up for recall needs to do to stay in office is be a plurality winner (i.e., get more votes than other candidates on the ballot), and so the more candidates running, the better for the official.

California use a more sensible two-stage system—with both stages on the same ballot.  Stage 1 asks if the official subject to the recall should be recalled.  If “Yes” gets more votes than “No,” then we get to Stage 2, which includes a list of replacement candidates on the ballot (not including the official subject to recall).  The plurality winner of Stage 2 goes on to assume office if yes gets more votes than no in stage 1.

This is how the 2003 gubernatorial recall of Gray Davis worked (remember Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante’s slogan?  No on recall. Yes on Bustamante.).  Someone sued for the right to get Gray Davis on the Stage 2 portion of the ballot, and the courts rejected that challenge.   This makes sense.  Stage 1 is the question of “anyone but Davis.”  Stage 2 was “who should replace Davis?”  As the Pearce recall shows, without the two stages, you are inviting chicanery.

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