Democrats Could Change ‘Weaponized' California Recall System

Changes to the recall law could go before voters as early as the November 2022 general election

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Hours after California Gov. Gavin Newsom beat back a recall election that could have cost him his job, his fellow Democrats in the state Legislature said Wednesday that they will push for changes to make it more difficult to challenge a sitting governor.

That could include increasing the number of signatures needed to force a recall election, raising the standard to require wrongdoing on the part of the officeholder and changing the process that could permit someone with a small percentage of votes to replace the state's top elected official.

“I think the recall process has been weaponized,” Newsom said a day after his decisive victory.

He said the recall rules affect not just governors but school boards, city councils, county supervisors and district attorneys, notably in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where progressive prosecutors with reform agendas are facing recall efforts.

The governor noted that California has one of the nation's lowest thresholds for the number of signatures needed to trigger a recall election. In Newsom's case, organizers had to collect nearly 1.5 million signatures out of California's 22 million registered voters in their bid to oust him, or 12% of the electorate who voted him into office in 2018. By contrast, Kansas requires 40%.

But the efforts faced pushback from those who organized the recall election against Newsom and questions from experts, who said California’s law is better than many others in limiting requirements that make it harder to recall politicians.

“They’re working in opposition of the will of the people when they take action like that to limit our ability to self-govern,” said Orrin Heatlie, chief proponent of the recall effort.

There is little benefit for Democrats in pushing changes that could anger voters, said Joshua Spivak, an expert on recalls and senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform in New York.

“From a political point of view, it’s kind of crazy, and I can’t imagine why they would spend political capital on this,” Spivak said. “Are you going to go to the voters and say, ‘Well, we didn’t deal with the homeless problem but yeah, we fixed the recall?’ It just doesn’t seem like a smart move.”

Newsom declined to say what changes he favors, saying he is too close to the process as a recall target who could someday face another attempt.

Other Democrats were more specific.

“We need to create a system where a small, small, small minority of Californians can’t create, can’t initiate a recall that the California taxpayers spent almost $300 million on and that frankly distracts and really has an impact on our ability to govern for nine months,” Assemblyman Marc Berman said.

State Sen. Josh Newman, who was recalled in 2018 before regaining his seat two years later, said he will propose two constitutional amendments: one to raise the number of required signatures and another to have the lieutenant governor finish the governor’s term if a recall succeeds.

Newsom on Tuesday became only the second governor in U.S. history to defeat a recall; the other was Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker in 2012. The win cements him as a prominent figure in national Democratic politics and ensures that the nation’s most populous state remains a laboratory for progressive policies.

The race was seen as a test of whether opposition to former President Donald Trump and his brand of conservative politics remains a motivating force for Democrats and independents as the party looks ahead to midterm elections next year. With an estimated 74% of ballots counted, the “no” response to the question of whether to recall Newsom was ahead by a 28-point margin.

At the Capitol, Berman and Sen. Steven Glazer, who head the elections panels in their respective chambers, promised bipartisan hearings in the coming months, with the goal of proposing constitutional changes after lawmakers reconvene in January. Changes to the recall law must be approved by voters.

GOP Assemblyman Kelly Seyarto, vice chairman of the elections committee, said Republicans will seek to ensure the proposals protect voters' ability to hold politicians accountable.

The two elections committees will look at recall laws in other states and hear from experts on California’s process.

“I want to make sure we have is a system where a governor can’t be recalled and replaced by someone" who gets fewer votes because "that’s undemocratic, and there’s really no other way to say that,” Berman said.

Nineteen states have some sort of recall process, Glazer said, but only Colorado has a similar two-stage process. The California system asks voters first whether they want to remove the incumbent. Then, if a majority favors removal, the candidate who gets the most votes on the second question becomes governor. In this week's race, 46 candidates were on the ballot.

In the majority of other recall states, he said, the only question on the ballot is whether the official should be recalled. If a majority of voters say yes, the office is declared vacant and filled by appointment or a separate special election.

Changes have the backing of the California Legislature’s two leaders, both Democrats, and their party holds two-thirds majorities in both chambers. But the final decision will come down to voters because the recall process was enshrined in the state Constitution in 1911.

“This is a system that was set up about a century ago and to the extent to which it’s still valid in its current form, it needs to be looked at for sure,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said.

A Public Policy Institute of California survey in July showed that 86% of likely voters approve of having a way to recall elected officials, a sentiment that transcends political parties, regions, and demographic groups. But two-thirds of likely voters also supported major or minor changes, though Republicans and Democrats split over the extent of the changes.

Newsom on Wednesday hailed the election results as evidence that most voters support his approach to the coronavirus pandemic, including mask and vaccine mandates.

Supporters of the recall expressed frustration over monthslong business closures and restrictions that kept most children out of classrooms. Rising homicides, a homelessness crisis and an unemployment fraud scandal further angered Newsom’s critics.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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