By Ram Reddy
California—to many—is the shining beacon of what it means to be a progressive, Blue State. Just as Texan politicians and voters tend to take pride in their depiction in popular media as a deep Red State, Californian politicians are beholden to putting up a persona of deep Blue, going so far as to run ads about their values in rival red states.
California has led the charge in introducing and/or passing sweeping new bills about voter registration and vote by mail laws, in an effort to increase turnout in the state that has abysmally low turnout. Cynics saw this as a tactic by state Democrats to increase minority turnout due to the threat some progressive politicians have faced in backlash to crime waves. But whatever the intention, the state is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to making democracy more accessible and accountable to citizens…except in the area of recalls.
Approaches to popular sovereignty and democracy in California seem to come down to party lines because, though recalls remain broadly popular across party lines, the targets for recalls tend to be Democrats. Recalls empower minority parties in a state where Democrats hold veto proof supermajorities at almost every level. Calls for making reforming recalls and perhaps making them less effective are making the rounds as bills in Sacramento. The Golden State enjoys one of the lowest thresholds for recalls of all western states, and its voters have successfully recalled a governor and various state officials—most recently DA Chesa Boudin. As a result, many Democratic policy makers in Sacramento are calling for a fleet of sweeping new reforms from raising the signature threshold, to constitutional amendments to mandate a cause for recall, or eliminate the recall altogether. While most of these measures are not groundbreaking in the state’s political discourse, there are newer and more controversial measures including preventing local offices where the holder is removed from being filled until the next election and forcing state wide offices subject to recall to remain vacant until the next election or a special election where the recalled officer would still be treated as an incumbent. Opponents see these attempts at leaving the offices empty as efforts to further solidify Democratic Party control over the state, as the supermajority with a vacant governor’s seat merely means what few bills would be vetoed now cannot be vetoed.
Proponents of the recall reform measures point to the blowout victories of DA George Gaston and Gavin Newsom and have tried to paint reform as popular amongst the state’s Democratic majority. While generic questions about recall reform tend to poll around 50%, specific reforms fail to garner majority support even amongst Democrats in most polls aside from one conducted by UC Berkeley.
Republicans have weaponized these efforts as attempts by state Democrats to further cement control over opposition, and they’re using voters’ complaints over rising crime and financial woes to do so. They point to what they claim are the state’s lax policy towards verification of absentee ballots and registration drives and the efforts to nitpick and toss out recall signatures to keep measures from the ballot—though opponents of these recall efforts point to the poorly run recall campaigns as the reason for these failures.
The battle over recalls will continue to loom in the Golden State and efforts to change the process shall grow. Even though statewide recalls of officials like Gov. Newsom might have failed, more and more local offices are being targeted,perhaps galvanized by the successful recalls of Chesa Boudin and a trio of school board officials in San Francisco. Los Angeles DA George Gascon is likely to face a third recall in the coming year. For better or for worse recalls will continue to be in the spotlight in California, as will the juxtaposition of efforts by state legislators and politicians to promote democracy while cutting down on threats to their incumbency.