Gavin Newsom was depicted as a dictator on a rally sign. A pastor called the governor a Marxist tyrant. Photo by Chris Stone

Gov. Gavin Newsom has an opportunity to reform California’s flawed recall process with the stroke of his pen. 

Sitting on his desk, approved by both houses of the Legislature, is my Senate Bill 660, which prohibits organizers of recalls, initiatives and referenda from paying signature gatherers on a per-signature or “bounty” basis. 

California’s state Constitution allows voters to take direct action to enact or repeal laws or to remove elected officials from office. We have these tools of participatory democracy because in 1911, when California’s state government was dominated by manipulative special interests, reform-minded advocates believed that average citizens should have a “safety valve” to enact laws that otherwise might be thwarted by corrupt forces. 

Ironically, in the century since they were adopted, these constitutional tools have become subject to abuse and exploitation by the very powers they were intended to offset.

In addition to SB 660, I plan to introduce two bills that also address the recall process. The first would raise the threshold for the number of signatures needed to qualify a recall effort, from 12% to 20% of the participating electorate in the last election.  

When the framers of recall devised the process more than a century ago, they didn’t imagine a digital reality — online fundraising, Twitter, Facebook, “echo-chamber” media and bitter partisan polarization. In the face of all that, it’s clear that the 12% threshold no longer serves its intended purpose of validating the legitimacy of a recall effort. The threshold should be raised accordingly to 20%.

My second reform is the elimination of the “Part B” question on the recall ballot — who should become governor if a recall vote succeeds. California already has a No. 2 constitutional officer in the person of the lieutenant governor. In the same way that the vice president assumes power if the US president is impeached, the lieutenant governor, who is elected independently of the governor, should assume the office if a governor is recalled.

Such a change would strip out the very clear, current incentive for political mischief and restore the recall process to being a means to achieve justice, as the framers intended.  

Yet for now, SB 660 offers the most immediate rescue. Because bounty-paid signature gatherers optimize their compensation by persuading voters to sign as rapidly as possible, professional signature gatherers routinely employ misleading information and outright lies in order to collect the maximum signatures in the minimum amount of time. Instances of fraudulent representation of petitions are numerous and well documented. 

SB 660 addresses this corrosive incentive structure by prohibiting campaigns from paying signature gatherers on a per-signature basis for initiatives, referendums or recalls, while still permitting payment on an hourly or salaried basis, as long as compensation is not based on the number of signatures obtained.

Direct democracy processes have an essential role in California’s politics and governance. We must ensure, however, that these processes are honest and that voters aren’t continually subjected to deception and duplicity that generate distrust in our precious electoral democracy. 

Seven other states, including Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming, have examined the issues surrounding paid signature gathering and adopted legislation similar to SB 660. Those states prohibit per-signature bounty payments and require instead that compensation be hourly or salaried.

California should do the same. Our democracy and governance will be better for this reform. 

Sen. Josh Newman represents California’s 29th senatorial district, which encompasses parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties. He wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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