By Lara Korte and Hannah Wiley | Sacramento Bee
A day after Gov. Gavin Newsom soundly defeated a recall, Democrats are looking to change the 110-year-old process that allows for a state official to be removed.
Those who want to see the recall process reformed argue that it’s too easy to trigger such an election, and the way the ballot is set up is unfair because it allows for a candidate with a small portion of the total votes to win office.
“California has dodged a bullet twice,” said former Gov. Gray Davis, the only other California governor to face a recall election. In 2003, 44.6% of Californians voted to keep Davis in office, but he was ultimately replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won more votes than Davis 48.6% of the ballots cast on that year’s replacement ballot.
“At some point they won’t dodge the bullet, and a governor will be replaced by someone who had less votes on the same ballot,” Davis said.
The progressives led by former Republican Gov. Hiram Johnson who championed the original California recall amendment 110 years ago intended it to be a “precautionary measure by which a recalcitrant official can be removed” between elections. They wanted to limit the political power of the railroad companies that dominated the state’s economy at the time.
But now, over a century and two gubernatorial recalls later, some California lawmakers, political consultants and elections experts say they want to see the process overhauled to reflect modern politcs.
Many want to raise the number of required signatures from 12% of the last election turnout to 20% or more, a change that would require recall advocates to obtained hundreds of thousands more signatures.
Other ideas include mandating that the lieutenant governor succeed a recalled governor, or allowing the targeted official to run alongside replacement candidates.
“I just think it is quite absurd to have a process that allows a political party, that is a decided minority in the state, to roll the dice at the public’s expense,” said Chris Elmendorf, a professor at the University of California, Davis who studies elections.
Regardless of which ideas Democrats rally around, the final say will be up to voters, as any changes will require a constitutional amendment, which are required to go before a statewide vote.
California spent $276 million to conduct the Newsom recall election. If the vote totals reported Tuesday night hold steady, he will have won the recall by a greater margin than his election in 2018.
“It’s ludicrous,” Garry South, a longtime Democratic consultant and former adviser to Davis, said of the cost. “That’s why the recall process will be reformed.”
What do they want to change?
Nineteen states have a process for recalling the governor, but California’s is one of the easiest, Democrats say.
In order to put a recall on the ballot in California, voters must submit petition signatures equal to 12% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. In the case of Gov. Gavin Newsom, that number was 1.5 million signatures — less than 4% of the total state’s population.
California petitioners typically have 160 days to submit enough signatures, but because of pandemic restrictions, Newsom recall advocates were given an extra 120 days.
Other states require far more signatures, and a much shorter time to collect them. Some also require voters to present a certain reason for recall, such as incompetence, an act of malfeasance, or in some cases, a felony conviction.
In California, however, you can recall a governor for any reason.
In Kansas, for example, voters who want to remove a sitting governor can only do so if the governor has been convicted of a felony, shown misconduct in office, incompetence or failure to perform their gubernatorial duties. Voters must submit signatures equal to 40% of the votes cast in the last election to trigger a recall election, and have only 90 days to do it.
If California required 40% of the last turnout, petitioners would have been required to gather nearly 5 million votes.
California’s 12% signature threshold is “ridiculously low” and should be raised to 20% said South, the Democratic consultant. South said he believes California should only allow a gubernatorial recall under certain conditions, similar to other states, and that a certain percentage of signatures should come from voters registered in the same party as the target of the recall.
Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since 2006, and registered Democrats outnumber them almost two to one. The recall process, South argues, has become a political crowbar for a party that has a slim chance of winning in a normal election year.
“You can’t allow a recall provision like this to become a tool by the minority party, who can’t win office by any other way, to try to harass Democrats and sneak Republicans in the back door… when they can’t get in the front door,” he said.
Incentives for polarizing candidates
Californians vote on both the recall and a replacement candidate on the same ballot. A replacement candidate will only win if more than 50% vote “yes” on the first question. There’s no limit to how many replacement candidates can enter the race, but the incumbent is not allowed to run on question two.
The kind of recall ballot used in California means a replacement candidate could still win office, even if he or shee receives fewer votes than the target of the recall.
Elmendorf, the UC Davis law professor, argues the current recall system creates an environment where polarizing candidates like Larry Elder can succeed despite having a small base of support, and there’s no incentive for the Republican party to support candidates who are more moderate and appeal to a wider range of voters.
“I think the end goal should be to create a political framework in which the California Republican Party has incentives to put forward candidates and policy positions that have a chance at winning support from 50% of the electorate,” he said.
Now, even with Newsom having escaped the claws of the recall, Democrats in the Legislature are looking to change California’s constitution to prevent such a situation from happening again.
“It bears discussion and debate,” said Senate President Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, during a Friday press call marking the end of the 2021 session.”We’ve heard that people want change.”
A 2022 ballot measure?
Because the recall is part of the state constitution, changing it will require a ballot measure and a subsequent statewide vote, and polling suggests voters may be supportive.
Former Gov. Jerry Brown told CNN last week that he doubts voters will want to give up that power.
“It’s kind of a wild process,” Brown said. “But to get rid of it would take a vote of the people again, and I think it might be rather hard to get the people to give up the power. Because I think they like to hold the last card.”
Researchers at the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found three out of four voters say the recall provision is a good thing, but a majority also support certain reforms. The reform with the most support calls for changing the rules so that if no replacement candidate wins a majority of the vote, and the officeholder is voted out of office, a runoff election should be held between the top two vote getters.
A majority of voters also say that officeholders should only be able to face a recall for a certain cause, and support increasing the number of petition signatures to 25% of the turnout in the last election instead of 12%. Almost half of voters also said it should be harder for replacement candidates to run.
California Democrats are already considering plans to revise the recall election process that include putting the lieutenant governor in charge if a governor is ousted and to up the signature gathering threshold to make it harder for a petition to qualify.
Other proposals suggested by California political consultants include:
Require a certain percentage of signatures to come from the targeted official’s own party.
Require a “for cause” clause outlining the circumstances for recalling an official.
Allow the subject of the recall to be listed as a candidate alongside the other candidates. If the incumbent wins the most votes, then they aren’t recalled.
Raise the cost of entry for a candidate to discourage non-serious candidates.
If no candidate wins a majority of votes on question two, require a runoff between the top two candidates.
The idea is to make it more difficult for a recall to make it to the ballot in the first place. If it does, they want to ensure that the person who wins the governorship is the person who wins the most votes.
Assemblyman Marc Berman, a Palo Alto Democrat and chair of the Assembly Elections Committee, said he wants to ensure that any future recall is a “properly Democratic process, where the majority of voters decide what happens.”
“We haven’t identified, we haven’t rallied around one set of reforms yet. That’s the conversation that needs to happen after the recall,” Berman said last week.
Recommendations are already pouring in.
“A lot of people have raised concerns about the recall process that we have in California,” he said. “(They’re) completely confused by how somebody could get 20% of the vote and become governor. That’s a very confusing and anti-Democratic system for Californians to understand.”
Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Contra Costa and chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments, didn’t detail exact plans for any recall reforms.
But the former senior adviser Brown said Newsom’s triumph, along with the $276 million cost of running the election, was proof that the “recall process was inappropriately used.”
“There’s a bigger price at stake and that’s the trust in our Democratic system,” Glazer said. “It’s hard to put an actual dollar amount on that and how it fits into the confidence in how we do our democratic work in our state and country.”