A website-promoting card served double duty as a face mask at the harborfront rally. Photo by Chris Stone

Once the $276 million (in taxpayer funds) gubernatorial recall is mercifully over in September, the Democratically controlled Legislature needs to seriously address deficiencies in the recall process.

In the 92 years since the provision was added to the state Constitution and 2003, there had never been a recall attempt against a sitting governor that qualified for the ballot, despite dozens of attempts. Now, two of the last three Democratic governors will have been subjected to a recall within 18 years.

The main reason: California Republicans can’t win a gubernatorial election outright, so they are using the recall as a back-door alternative.

When they couldn’t defeat a very unpopular Gov. Gray Davis in the 2002 general election, Republicans came back for a re-do the next year via the recall. (The last time California Republicans defeated a sitting Democratic governor in a regular election was in 1966.) Democrat Gavin Newsom won the 2018 gubernatorial race with 62% of the vote — the largest margin of victory for a candidate of either party since 1950.

The recall provision was designed by early-20th-century Progressives as a tool to rid the state of politicians who exhibited shocking behavior, were abusing the public trust or mishandling public funds. It was not intended to be a political crowbar for a minority party to try to force its way into an office in special off-year elections.

These four basic reforms would help ensure that recalls are not misused:

Require more signatures: Only 19 states allow recalls of governors, but most require more signatures to qualify a recall than California. Most require signatures of 25% of the voters who voted in the last election. One requires 33.3%, another 40%. California’s requirement is a ridiculously low 12% of the voters in the last gubernatorial election. 

In the digital age, collection of signatures is far easier than envisioned in 1911. The threshold for valid signatures for recall of a governor should be 20% to conform with the recall provision for legislators and judges, and to fall more in line with other states’ procedures. 

Toughen allowable reasons for a recall: 
In many of the other states that allow recalls, specific grounds must be present: the incumbent committing criminal acts, for example, or malfeasance in office. In California, any reason will do. The Legislature needs to lay out “for cause” reasons in the recall provisions — that is, specify the conditions under which a governor may be subjected to a recall.

Establish distributive partisan requirements for signatures: The Newsom recall proponents would have us believe that the recall qualified for the ballot because of a huge, bipartisan, grassroots uprising against the governor. Their own numbers disprove that characterization. 

Of the more than 2.1 million unverified signatures proponents collected, 64% of the signers were Republicans, according to recall backers. Only 9% were Democrats. That means only about .018% of the 10.7 million registered Democrats in the state signed the petitions. 

A certain percentage of signatures — say, 25% — should come from voters registered with the same party as the target of the recall. This way, it makes it less likely that one party uses the recall provision to try to remove elected incumbents that they can’t beat in a general election.

Increase filing requirements: Right now, one need only pay a modest filing fee of about $4,000 to run as a candidate in the recall election. 

In the ‘03 recall, 135 candidates filed. It was a veritable clown car — a pornography publishing king, a porn star who promised to sleep with whoever voted for her, a midget, a Sumo wrestler, a comedian who broke watermelons over his head. 

The 2021 crop of recall candidates numbers only 46 — possibly because a state law was interpreted to require aspirants to submit five years of tax returns. But other than a handful of current and former GOP elected officials, it is no less an odds-and-ends drawer than the ‘03 field. And last week a judge threw out the tax-return requirement, so even that hurdle is now gone for future recalls.

Every fee-paying candidate must also collect a ridiculously low number of voters’ signatures — 65 to 100. In lieu of paying the filing fee, would-be candidates also can collect 7,000 valid signatures from voters. But I submit that every candidate should also have to collect this or a similar level of valid voter signatures to show they have at least some minimal level of support.

My bet is most of the candidates running as a lark couldn’t begin to — or wouldn’t want to put in the effort to — collect signatures from thousands of voters.

No matter how the recall turns out — and I think Newsom beats it handily — electoral processes like this need to be reviewed and amended to ensure they are serving the public’s interests, not that of a special interest or political party. Legislators would be remiss when this is over not to seriously consider changes to how our recall elections are managed. If they don’t, voters who care about rational elections should bug them until they do. 

Garry South is a veteran Democratic strategist who managed Gray Davis’ successful gubernatorial campaigns in 1998 and 2002 and was senior advisor to Gavin Newsom’s first run for governor in 2008-09, before Newsom exited the race. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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