By Caleb McClain
Earlier in the year, I wrote an article for this blog on the recall election laws of my home state of California. I was inspired to write the article by to the persistent efforts to recall my county’s District Attorney, George Gascón, and the recent special election that tried to recall the Governor, Gavin Newsom. Shortly after I finished writing the article, there was a successful recall of the San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin and a failed attempt to recall Gascón. Considering these events, I wish to take a closer look at both elections and see if any of the critiques of the California recall system apply.
As I have previously given a history and overview of recall election, I’ll give only a brief summary. Recall elections emerged out of the progressive movement as way to give power back to the people to remove corrupt officials but in practice have had a mixed effect. California has hosted over 11 recall elections with the most famous being the successful recall of Grey Davis in 2003 and the failed attempt to recall Newsome in 2021. The election occurs when a recall petition is circulated in the required jurisdiction to gain signatures. If the required number is met, it triggers an election to decide if the official will be recalled and, depending on the office, who will replace them. For county-wide elections the number of required signatures is determined by a percentage of the number of registered voters in that county with bigger counties needing a smaller percentage.
First to be examined is the successful campaign against SFDA Boudin. For a successful county-wide recall in San Francisco county, a petitioner must collect over 50,000 valid signatures from among San Francisco’s 496,000 registered voters. Supporters of the recall managed to gather more than 80,000 valid signatures ensuring it would go to a vote. The vote ultimately resulted in 122, 000 voting for the recall compared to 100,00 voting to keep Boudin, successfully recalling the DA by more than 20,000 votes and making SF Mayor London Breed pick the next DA.
Next, we examine the failed campaign to recall DA Gascón. For a successful county-wide recall in Los Angeles County a petitioner must collect over 570,000 valid signatures from the county’s 5.6 million registered voters. Supporters of the recall fell short by over 50,000 votes when they only managed to get 520,000 valid signatures leaving Gascón safe until he is up for reelection in 2024. This was the second failed attempt to recall Gascón.
In my previous article I pointed out several issues with the way California’s recall elections were set-up particularly at the state level. Now these two recall attempts, despite their different outcomes, offer useful examples of these flaws at the local level. The first and greatest among these is the low bar of signatures needed to trigger a recall election with only 10% needed to trigger a recall election in a county with over 100,000 registered voters. Currently California has over 30 counties with registered voter populations over 100,000 out of 52 total counties. Looking at San Francisco in particular, it is not a great challenge to round up 50,000 voters out of just under 500,000 total. As California Secretary of State Shirley Webber puts it “There’s always 10 to 15% who do not like somebody.”
A second, and broader, critique is the overall effectiveness of recall elections. At the state level, I pointed out how recalling governors was due less to perceived corruption than to external forces they had little control over or internal partisan squabbling. This same issue still holds true at the local level, with the San Francisco and Los Angeles recalls both being marked by similar forces despite their different outcomes. Both cities were on the front lines of the progressive prosecutor movement in California, with Gascón serving as Boudin’s predecessor in SF. Further, both recall attempts emerged as a reaction to a national spike in crime amplified by a series of viral smash and grab robberies. However, the crime spike occurred across the nation during the pandemic regardless of the ‘tough’ or ‘soft’ policies of the county District Attorney and holding a local official solely responsible for a national problem severely undercuts that rationale for a recall. These issues and others with the recall process have been noted by activists and politicians alike and movement is underway to bring a suite of reforms before the voters and the state legislature, which a classmate has written at length about.