California recall: Is populist tool undermining democracy?

For years, the Southern Pacific Railroad – the richest, most powerful corporation in California – had a stranglehold on corrupt politicians in the state, including through bribes. In 1911, the progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson and newly elected legislators hit back with a triple punch of direct democracy: the ballot initiative, the referendum, and the recall, giving the people the power to make laws, overturn laws, and remove elected officials.

Now Johnson’s intent is being turned upside down, says Kathryn Olmsted, a history professor at the University of California, Davis. If a majority of voters decide to oust Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, he would be replaced by the challenger with the most votes: conservative talk-show host Larry Elder. Recent polls show Mr. Newsom will probably keep his job, but the possibility that a duly elected governor could be booted by a minority of voters who don’t like what he’s doing greatly concerns her. 

“The progressives put the recall in place to punish corrupt legislators or governors, and now it’s being used because people don’t like the policies,” she says. This is potentially “undermining democracy.”

Why We Wrote This

California’s recall option started life as a tool to fight corruption. A century later, with the GOP outnumbered almost 2-to-1 and partisanship raging, the conservative minority sees it as the last hope to claim leadership.

Bakersfield, Calif.

Hiram Johnson would be “horrified” by Tuesday’s special election to recall California’s governor, Gavin Newsom. 

So says historian Kathryn Olmsted, speaking about California’s great reformer governor of more than a century ago who ushered in the recall as a tool to fight corruption in government. 

For years, the Southern Pacific Railroad – the richest, most powerful corporation in the state – had a stranglehold on corrupt politicians in the state, including through bribes. In 1911, Governor Johnson and newly elected legislators – all progressive for their time – hit back with a triple punch of direct democracy: the vaunted ballot initiative, the referendum, and the recall, giving the people the power to make laws, overturn laws, and remove elected officials. It was the same year that women in California won the right to vote, nearly a decade ahead of the nation.

Why We Wrote This

California’s recall option started life as a tool to fight corruption. A century later, with the GOP outnumbered almost 2-to-1 and partisanship raging, the conservative minority sees it as the last hope to claim leadership.

Now Johnson’s intent is being turned upside down, says. Dr. Olmsted, a history professor at the University of California, Davis. If a majority of voters decide to oust Democratic Governor Newsom, he would be replaced by the challenger with the most votes. That’s conservative talk-show host Larry Elder, who, according to a statewide poll released Friday, has 38% support among likely voters who plan to vote for a replacement. Recent polls show Mr. Newsom will probably keep his job, with a comfortable 16- to 20-point lead, depending on the poll. But the possibility that a duly elected governor could be booted by a minority of voters who don’t like what he’s doing greatly concerns her. 

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor

Republican talk-show host Larry Elder, leading candidate to replace California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in a special election Sept. 14, pauses for selfies at a rally in Bakersfield Sept. 9.

“The progressives put the recall in place to punish corrupt legislators or governors, and now it’s being used because people don’t like the policies,” she says.

Three years ago, Governor Newsom crushed his Republican opponent, winning a record 61% of the vote. If he’s replaced by a candidate with only a minority of support among voters, a recall will overturn the will of the people, according to Dr. Olmsted. She says it’s potentially “undermining democracy,” which is the exact opposite of what Johnson wanted: more democracy.

Questions about whether this recall election is democratic have been swirling all summer. In August, a federal judge dismissed a suit that challenged its constitutionality. Even so, Democrats, who control every state executive position as well as the Legislature, are talking about the need for recall reform, while the Republican minority sees this as their best chance at the governorship in a deep-blue state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-to-1.

“It’s important to have that mechanism in place, and every state should have it,” says Marissa Simmer, a retired superior court supervisor in Kern County, a heavily Republican area in the state’s vast Central Valley. The local economy relies on agriculture, oil, and gas, and Ms. Simmer faults the governor for his water and energy policies that are hurting farmers and the fossil fuel industry. 

She shared her concerns last Thursday in Bakersfield, where Mr. Elder had stopped by a local park to rally an enthusiastic crowd on his “Recall Express” statewide bus tour. “He’s our last best hope for California,” she says.

Year of the recall

Only 19 states allow recall elections, most of them west of the Mississippi River. This will be only the fourth gubernatorial recall election in the nation’s history, and the second in California’s. Although recalls at all levels of government have been declining in recent years, last year saw a big increase in recall attempts – at least 434 recall attempts or threats, including against 14 governors, says Joshua Spivak, a recall expert at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York. This year has topped that, with more than 500 attempts.

“There is one issue that dominated,” says Mr. Spivak. The pandemic. “In the past, there has never been an issue that cut across anywhere,” because recalls are usually about local issues.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor

Laura, who did not want her full name used, holds a sign at a rally for a Republican candidate for governor, talk show host Larry Elder, in Bakersfield, California, Sept. 9. She likes that Mr. Elder wants to roll back state mandates on masks and vaccines. The lifelong Californian says she and her husband are exploring other states – and governors – in their plan to relocate.

In behemoth California, the most populous state in the nation, it’s not just the governor who is under fire. In San Francisco, organizers say they have more than enough signatures for a recall election against three school board members. Recalls are also aimed at three Democratic district attorneys. And three Los Angeles city council members are under fire, with homelessness playing a big role. At least 70 recall campaigns have been launched in the Golden State this year. 

“This certainly does seem to be the year of the recall in California,” says Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute, whose recent poll found Governor Newsom surviving the recall. Still, a vast majority of Golden State likely voters – 86% – like the recall option.

Bakersfield rallygoers Jose and Nancy Gonzalez, shaded by a covered picnic area on a day that hit 108 degrees Fahrenheit, are grateful to have the recall option. “Our state is getting worse year by year,” says Ms. Gonzalez, a retired elementary school teacher. People ought to have the ability to remove the governor – or anyone – if they are “not doing their job” or hurting the community. Her husband agrees, citing high taxes, crime, and homelessness, among other issues.

And then there are the pandemic vaccine mandates for state employees, teachers, and health care workers, which Mr. Elder promises to roll back. At the rally, he said emphatically that he is not anti-vax. He himself is vaccinated. He is just anti-mandate for vaccinations. That’s a position that Laura, who did not want to use her full name, heartily supports. She came to the rally carrying a red, white, and blue sign: “Don’t take our medical freedom away.”

While polls show the recall option is popular across political ideologies and regions, a majority of voters also want to reform it – though how much depends on party preference. California has a low threshold for signature gathering, and its two-part ballot format is confusing: Vote no or yes for the recall; then choose among a list of replacement candidates (46 in this case) in the event that a majority vote for the recall.

The two-question format allows for the possibility that a replacement governor could be elected with only a plurality of support, and a small one at that. Indeed, about a third of voters are not expected to even vote for a replacement candidate.

This plurality concern was not an issue in the last and only other California gubernatorial recall election in 2003, when voters showed Democratic Gov. Gray Davis the door, while welcoming in Republican celebrity Arnold Schwarzenegger. That’s because more voters supported Mr. Schwarzenegger (48.6%) than voted to keep the governor (44.6%).

Political cudgel?

Even though Mr. Newsom seems safe, the election is shining a spotlight on the process. Former Governor Davis, Democratic leaders, and observers are urging reforms. They include raising the petition-signature threshold, requiring a cause for recall (such as wrongdoing), and holding a separate runoff election if voters choose to send a governor packing. Those would require changing the state’s constitution.

Given today’s intensely polarized politics, “I just hope that we don’t face this every single term for every single governor going out, and I fear that we will unless we at least raise the number of signatures required,” says Dr. Olmsted.

But Mr. Baldassare is less concerned about the recall turning into a political cudgel. Even though every governor since 1960 has faced attempted removal, “to do anything through the direct democracy process takes time and money, and a lot of money.”

The only reason this one got to an election was because of a perfect storm, all related to the historic pandemic. In November, a judge granted a four-month extension to gather signatures. This came at the exact moment of Governor Newsom’s French Laundry blunder, in which a pricey dinner party became a symbol of hypocrisy to critics. An effort that had started as a complaint against the governor’s stand on immigration, taxes, homelessness, and the death penalty suddenly sprang to life over the governor’s pandemic restrictions and behavior. Polls show a good number of independents plan to vote for the recall, along with a small slice of Democrats.

Mr. Spivak says the recall election could actually “boomerang” on Republicans. He cites Democrats’ failed effort in 2012 to recall Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker in a special election. Mr. Walker was reelected with an even wider margin than he had just two years before. “Just because you have this weapon doesn’t mean it will work for you.”

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