Newsom Crushed the Recall. Now Democrats Want to Change the System

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Gov. Newsom brandishes a fist as he speaks at a podium in from a Vote No sign.
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to union workers and volunteers at the IBEW Local 6 union hall in San Francisco on Sept. 14, 2021, the day of his recall election. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

California legislative leaders wasted no time announcing their intentions to reform the state's more than century-old recall process, after voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly defeated a prolonged and costly effort to oust Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Voters want to be able to hold leaders accountable, said state Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, chair of the Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee.

“But they don't want this partisan manipulation where a small minority can force an election and have a candidate prevail with less than a majority vote. That is anti-democratic," he said.

The State Senate and the Assembly elections committees will hold joint hearings in the coming months to explore possible reforms to the 1911 constitutional amendment. One proposal on the table would increase the number of signatures needed to qualify a recall for the ballot. (Currently, that qualifying threshold for executive officials — like the governor — is 12% of the total number of votes cast in the most recent election, and 20% of total votes for state legislators and judges.)

Another proposal is to divide the recall into two separate ballots, with the first asking voters if an official should be recalled, and the second asking who the replacement candidate should be.

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Glazer said he’s troubled by the current format — in which the two questions appear together on the same ballot — because it means a majority of votes is required to recall an official, but only a plurality of votes is then necessary for a replacement candidate to take control. Additionally, when officials are recalled, they are not allowed to be included among the list of replacement candidates, which critics say is an unfair disadvantage.

"I continue to be very uncomfortable with the second question and how it's set up in the recall process and the hijinks it creates and the lack of, potentially, a democratic choice that it creates," Glazer said. "I'm very troubled by that second question and its consequences."

But making any changes to the process could prove difficult.

Because the recall process is laid out in the state Constitution, amending it would require significant voter buy-in, notes Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson.

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And even though there appears to be growing public support for making changes to the recall process, Levinson says California voters are notoriously averse to tweaking ballot measures in any way that might limit their own power as citizens.

"If there's a question of reforming a process where it would be harder for us to recall an elected official, harder for it to get on the ballot, harder for it to pass, we tend to really shy away from that," Levinson said. "Because anything that smacks of taking power away from voters is almost universally unpopular."

And there are many who question whether massive reforms are needed at all. A recent UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll shows state Democrats clearly in favor of reform, and Republicans less likely to want changes.

Republican political consultant Mike Madrid says it's important to remember how rare it is for recalls to succeed.

In the more than 100 years since the recall amendment was approved, only six state elected officials have actually been recalled from their offices, despite nearly 200 attempts, according to the California Secretary of State's Office.

Madrid says the recall against Newsom likely wouldn't have qualified for the ballot under regular circumstances.

Getting it on the ballot "was only successful because of an extended period of time [for signature gathering], during a once-in-a-century global pandemic," he said. "So before we start reforming this system, let’s put this in context here."

Still, state Democratic lawmakers maintain the process needs serious updating. They point out that officials can be recalled for any reason — unlike in several other states, in which the process can only proceed if an official is convicted of an act of malfeasance or a serious crime.

Marc Berman, D-Menlo Park, chair of the Assembly Elections Committee, also notes that there are no time restraints on the process, pointing out that Newsom is up for reelection in 2022.

"I think a majority of Californians are very frustrated that we just spent $276 million on this recall election that, from the looks of it, has certified what voters said three years ago and what voters could have said next year," he said.

In fact, the cost may end up being higher. Secretary of State Shirley Weber estimates that when all the bills come due, the tab for this recall election may be closer to $300 million — which works out to about $14 per registered voter.