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The Recall Election Was Meant to Strengthen Democracy. Experts Say That's Not What Happened.

Gavin Newsom sits pensively in a crowd wearing a mask
California Governor Gavin Newsom attends a rally against the recall at Culver City High School in Culver City on September 4, 2021. | Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Image
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Ballots are already rolling in for a recall election that could impact everything from mask and vaccine mandates to how the state tackles issues like housing costs and homelessness.

That’s the recall election for Governor Gavin Newsom.

On Sept. 14, ballots are due that ask voters two questions: first, whether they want to recall Newsom. A “no” vote means Newsom stays in office, while a “yes” vote means he would leave. The second question asks, if Newsom is recalled, who should replace him. There are 46 candidates vying for that spot.

If a majority of voters choose “no,” then Newsom stays in office and no one replaces him. If a majority choose “yes,” then whatever replacement candidate gets the most votes will become governor. But only for a year—the next gubernatorial election is in 2022.

Recall elections have a long history in California, and they also make the state distinct: only five other states allow simultaneous recall elections for governor, where one ballot asks both whether the governor should be recalled and who should replace him or her. Eight other states hold two separate elections, one asking whether to recall the governor, and the next asking who should replace the governor if the recall succeeds. Still five other states allow the recall of the governor and then the lieutenant governor serves the remainder of the term.

In California’s constitution, recalls were allowed starting in 1911, for a very specific reason, said Brian Adams, a politics professor at San Diego State University.

“At that time, politicians were basically owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad, it was very corrupt, and recalls were a way to get rid of corrupt politicians,” he said.

The railroad had come to control all the newspapers in the state by making monthly payments for friendly coverage, and that meant the railroad also controlled politicians. It often chose what candidates would run and used news coverage to make sure they were elected, Adams said.

The recall process was meant to change that, by giving voters the power to remove politicians indebted to the railroad company from office. But while recall elections were established as an opportunity to increase direct democracy, some say that in practice the process has often done the opposite, empowering well-resourced special interest groups to take advantage of the way that an off-cycle election brings out a highly motivated minority.

Since the recall was established, there have been 179 recall attempts of state elected officials in California, but of those, only 11 collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. And of those, the elected official was only recalled six times.

When you look at the governor’s office, specifically, in addition to Newsom, there was only one other recall effort that qualified for the ballot — 55 were attempted but did not qualify. The one that did was successful. In 2003, Governor Gray Davis, a Democrat, was recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, was elected to replace him.

Adams said that historically, there haven’t been many successful efforts to get recalls on the ballot because they require a lot of time and money.

“To get a recall to qualify for the ballot, you have to collect a very large number of signatures, and very few people have the resources to do that,” he said.

In the past, a lot of people who don’t like the governor would say, ‘we’ll just wait until the next election,’ but now they’re saying, ‘we’ll just throw a ton of money at it and see if it works.’
Brian Adams, politics professor at San Diego State University

But, he thinks recalls are becoming more common as funders with political interests are more willing to spend the money. For example, in the current recall election, millionaires such as John Kruger, co-founder of sports apparel company Travis Mathew; developer Geoff Palmer; and venture capitalist Douglas Leone have all contributed heavily to the recall effort.

Donors like these who are willing to spend the money have made recalls possible, Adams said.

“In the past, a lot of people who don’t like the governor would say, ‘we’ll just wait until the next election,’ but now they’re saying, ‘we’ll just throw a ton of money at it and see if it works,’” he said.

Adams also said the interest in recalling Newsom likely stems from California’s overall trend toward liberal politics.

“California has moved so far left, it is impossible for a Republican to win a statewide office in a regular election, so for Republicans, recall is their only shot,” he said. “And that wasn’t true 20 years ago. The party out of power would say, ‘we’ll just wait until the next election,’ but now Republicans know they won’t win the next election, so they’re trying the recall.”

When comparing this election to the 2003 recall, Adams said there are key differences to consider: Governor Grey Davis had a 70% disapproval rating in the months before the election, whereas Newsom sits closer to 50%.

“Also, it was front page news in 2003, and now seems like people don’t know about the recall,” Adams said. “Because of Schwarzenegger, his star power was better than everyone else running this time, so it made national news. He wasn’t just on local TV stations, he was on Oprah and The Tonight Show.”

The dynamics of this special election favor Republican voters, said Paul Barragan Monge, the director of mobilization at the UCLA Policy and Politics Initiative.

“Due to the awkward nature of this race, that it’s an off-cycle election in the middle of September with a single race on the ballot doesn’t accord with the traditional cadence of when we’re used to voting,” he said. “Also, the structure of the ballot is deeply confusing, we’ve heard from so many folks who don’t know whether they’re supposed to answer both questions, and if question two invalidates question one.”

Monge’s initiative is nonpartisan, but is working specifically to ensure the Latino community is engaged in this election. As the 2020 election showed, the Latino community does not vote as a block — while Latinos were more likely to vote for President Joe Biden, certain communities, especially in Florida, favored Donald Trump. And in California, Trump won more votes from Latinos than in 2016. In fact, a July poll from Emerson College found Hispanics are majority in favor of the recall, with 54% choosing recall and 41% choosing keep. Other polls have shown different results, with a poll from UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies also carried out in July showing 40% of likely Latino voters recalling Newsom, and 56% choosing to keep him.

“We’re trying to make sure in the Latino community, there’s information around the fact that it’s happening, how individuals can vote, where they can vote,” he said. “There is a lack of clarity on how they can express their wishes through this deeply confusing ballot. They know what they want to achieve in the end goal, but it’s unclear how to get there with their ballot. And in this era of misinformation, it’s easy to be misled.”

Barragan Monge said due to this confusion, he thinks the recall election process needs to be reformed. A successful recall would show that if supporters of a recall are able to raise enough money to get a recall on the ballot, the confusing process and the two-part question ballot could mean that all future recalls will be successful.

Because of the design of the two-part question, the incumbent could be removed and replaced by a candidate with far fewer votes.
Paul Barragan Monge, the director of mobilization at the UCLA Policy and Politics Initiative


“It shows the election could be won at the signature gathering and ballot qualification stage rather than the election itself,” he said. “And because of the design of the two-part question, the incumbent could be removed and replaced by a candidate with far fewer votes. The structure of that is inherently undemocratic, and likely unconstitutional, and violates the idea of democracy that one person gets one vote.”

Barragan Monge said Newsom should appear on the same list of candidates vying to replace him instead of having a separate question about whether he should be recalled. Or, he suggested splitting the election into two, so there would first be a question about removing the governor, and then if the removal is successful, another round of voting on who the replacement would be. Currently, eight states, including Oregon, Montana and New Jersey do recall elections this way.

Rachel Laing, a political strategist who has worked on local recall efforts, said that whether Newsom’s recall is successful or not, she expects there will be attempts to change the process.

“I think a lot of people thought it wouldn't happen again after Schwarzenegger,” she said. “I think they thought that was a one off, but obviously it's a good recipe for getting someone who could never get elected normally elected based on a numbers game in the nature of elections.”

Changing the recall process would require a change to the state constitution, which would mean a referendum that would have to be approved by a majority of voters, said Adams.

But in California, where a majority of voters are Democrats, that is feasible, he said. As for whether the recall of Newsom will be successful, it’s difficult to predict. Polls show a near-even split among likely voters, with voters in favor of keeping Newsom slightly ahead at 52.7%.

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