California Democrats ponder reforms amid Newsom recall effort
Even before California voters finish casting their ballots in a recall election targeting Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), state Democrats are contemplating changes to raise the threshold for future recalls in an attempt to bring order to what has been a chaotic process.
But their chances of amending the recall provision face a long and winding path that will ultimately require voters themselves to approve any limits on their own power.
“It really is time to take a hard look at the recall provisions in the California constitution and assess that and see is it still serving its purpose,” said state Sen. Josh Newman (D), who was himself recalled in a 2017 election before he won back his old seat. “It’s sort of odd that we do the recall the way we do.”
The state Senate last week gave final approval to bar initiative sponsors — including those who want to recall an elected official — from paying petitioners for each voter’s signature they collect, a common practice in California’s long history of ballot measures. Newsom has not said whether he will sign the bill.
Other proposals include raising the threshold of the number of signatures needed to force a recall election in the first place. The state constitution requires supporters of a recall to collect the signatures equal to 12 percent of the total vote cast in the last regularly scheduled election — in the case of the current recall, about 1.5 million signatures.
Newman has also floated a different succession plan, allowing the lieutenant governor — who already takes over for a governor who quits voluntarily or dies in office — to become governor in the event of a recall.
“The striking feature of all of this is we have a No. 2 constitutional officer in California. If you’re recalling the governor, the duly elected lieutenant governor seems to me to be the logical option,” Newman said.
Others have suggested eliminating California’s unique two-part recall process in favor of a less confusing head-to-head race, similar to the recall that then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) survived in 2012. And some have mulled adding new criteria for a recall, like official malfeasance or corruption.
The recall provisions in California’s constitution, added at the behest of Progressive-era Gov. Hiram Johnson, say nothing about the reasons voters might want to recall an officer.
“The recall provision is silent about the provisions for the recall. It’s screamingly silent. If the progressives had wanted to make it only about corruption, they could have said so,” said Thad Kousser, who chairs the political science department at the University of California-San Diego. “Everybody says Hiram Johnson is turning over in his grave. But the truth is Hiram Johnson was turning over in his grave long before he was dead.”
Few of the California officials ever recalled were accused of corruption; the vast majority were given the boot for running afoul of voters on policy matters. State Sen. Edwin “E.E.” Grant (D), the second official ever recalled, was removed from office in 1913 by constituents in San Francisco’s Red Light district for his move to cut down on vice. Newman’s constituents recalled him after he voted to raise the gas tax, before sending him back to Sacramento two years later.
California’s Democratic-controlled legislature has several options for amending the constitution: Legislators can refer an amendment to the constitution on next November’s election. They can create an independent commission to consider changes, on which they would then vote. Or they can call a constitutional convention, which would open the entire document to revision.
Any of those paths would require approval from two-thirds of the legislature; Democrats control two-thirds of the state Senate, and almost three quarters of the Assembly. But they cannot take any unilateral action. Any proposal that earns enough support in Sacramento must be approved by voters.
There are signs that few voters are interested in giving up their power. A poll released Monday by the University of California-Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies found 75 percent of voters describing the recall as a good thing, though majorities of voters favored at least some amendments to the process.
And any reforms could carry a political cost in a state where mounting crises — a desperate housing shortage, a rising violent crime rate, new waves of coronavirus infections and a changing climate that has caused drought and fires — are enough to keep the legislature busy.
“Do California assemblymembers, senators want to go to voters and say we didn’t deal with the homelessness crisis, but we did change the recall law?” said Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute of Government Reform at Wagner College and the author of “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.” “It doesn’t seem to make too much sense.”
Newsom, the second California governor to face a recall election, appears poised to become the first to survive. Polls released over the weekend show just about 4 in 10 voters support removing him from office, far short of the majority required.
If he emerges with a mandate, Kousser said, it will give Democrats the political cover they need to make changes to Johnson’s reforms.
“If you win under the rules of the game,” Kousser said, “then you can change them without looking like a sore loser.”