By Caleb McClain
As a native of the Los Angeles area, one of the most enduring local news items of late from home has been the repeated attempts to mount a campaign to oust freshly elected District Attorney George Gascón. After the recent failure to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom, this LA County native can only stop and wonder what is this whole recall business our state has found itself so marked by.
Answering this question requires us to step back a bit and first ask: just what is a recall? A recall is simply put a voter-led effort to remove an elected official before their term of office expires. Currently nineteen states and DC allow for a recall of elected officials. In California, a recall begins by circulating a notice to recall a specific official. Then a recall petition is circulated in the required jurisdiction to gain the required number of signatures, which varies based on whether it is a local or state elected official. If the required number is gathered, an election is held to decide if the official will be recalled and, if so, who will replace them. Some states, such as Alaska, have specific requirements to initiate a recall but California is not among them.
Recall elections emerged in California in 1913 as part of then-Governor Hiram Johnson’s progressive era reforms that also introduced ballot initiatives and referendums to the state’s election framework as a way to take power back from corrupt special interests. Since 1913 there have been over 179 recall attempts of state officials, the majority of which have been from the 1980’s to the present mostly concern the governor or state assembly members. Of the attempts, only eleven have actually qualified for the ballot with only six being successful. The most famous of these was the 2003 recall of Democratic governor Grey Davis after a series of policy and state financial crisis’s and his replacement by “The Governator” himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Critics of California’s recall system have noted several major problems with the process. The first of these is the incredibly low bar for signatures to trigger a recall election. Currently a recall only needs to gather 12% of the vote to proceed for a statewide office like the governor. That breaks down to around 1.5 million votes. This sounds impressive, until you consider that California has a population of approximately 39 million people-of which almost 25 million are eligible to vote and over 22 million are fully registered. As Secretary of State Shirley Webber puts it “… [i]s it reasonable to have such a low bar for recall . . . [t]here’s always 10 to 15% who do not like somebody.”
The second is that recalls are an expensive process. The recall of Governor Newsom cost the state $200 million in taxpayer money which, while fortunately underbudget, is still a significant unexpected expense even for a state a large budget surplus.
Third, there is also concern that recalls function less as a voter accountability tool than a vehicle for partisan attacks. The frequency of recall attempts can be neatly mapped onto the growth of partisanship in California, and with the power of the internet and social media it is easier than ever for dissatisfied individuals to find each other and organize. This is further supported by the very partisan attitudes toward reforming the recall process.
Fourth is the charge that because of the way the recall process is, in practice, it is deeply undemocratic. One quirk of California’s recall process is that two questions are asked on the ballot. The first is whether if the official in question should be recalled, and the second is if so, who should replace them. The fear on the part of many is that an official could be recalled by the majority of voters but their successor could win without a majority of the vote. All they would require is more votes than their rivals.
Finally, there is the question about how useful a recall is, even when successful. Consider the first ever recall governor, North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier, back in 1921. Governor Frazier’s recall had more to do with internal partisan squabbles than any alleged unfitness or corruption; he was even elected to a US Senate seat the next year and served there for three terms. Nor is California’s historic recall of Grey Davis an unqualified success. While it is true that Davis was historically unpopular when voters went to the polls in 2003, much of that was due to the Enron energy crisis which was largely out of his control. Ultimately his replacement, “The Governator,“ left office with the same approval rating as Davis. This was due in no small part to the aftereffects of the 2008 global recession, something also out of his control.
Despite these flaws, recalls do still remain popular amongst the voting public, with over 86% percent of CA voters believing it is a good thing to have and other states seeing comparable levels of support. That said, over 66% of voter agree that some level of change to the recall process is needed. Several California political figures have come together proposing various changes, including members of the state assembly, the Secretary of State Shirley Webber, and even recalled governor Grey Davis. Among the various proposals for reform are: (1) increasing the number of signatures needed to trigger a statewide, (2) allow an official being recalled to run as a replacement, (3) require a certain bipartisan threshold for signatures, and (4) allowing the lieutenant governor to serve if a recall succeeds until a new election can be held. Ultimately, any change to the recall process would require changing the California Constitution and be subject to the approval of the voters who are fond of the power given to them.