PD Editorial: California’s recall rules are ripe for reform

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

With the election over, it’s time to fix some of the flaws in California’s recall system.

Democratic lawmakers wasted no time proposing reforms, which probably will be met with reflexive opposition from Republicans.

But this shouldn’t be a purely partisan response to the recall targeting Gov. Gavin Newsom, which failed spectacularly at a cost to taxpayers of more than $275 million.

The process matters — as voters already understood before this week’s election. A poll conducted in July by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 66% of likely voters — including 45% of Republicans — believe that changes are need to the recall process.

The challenge is identifying — and enacting — changes that restore the recall’s original purpose: removing corrupt or incompetent elected officials.

Any reforms will require constitutional amendments, which must be approved by the voters. Here are some provisions that deserve consideration:

Signatures: Of the 19 states that allow their governor to be recalled, California has the lowest threshold. To qualify, organizers must gather signatures equal to 12% of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. For Newsom, recall organizers needed fewer than 1.5 million signatures in a state with more than 22 million registered voters.

As Secretary of State Shirley Weber told CapRadio, “There’s always 10 to 15% who don’t like somebody.” That isn’t enough to recall a California legislator or a local officeholder, such as District Attorney Jill Ravitch. For those offices, the threshold is 20% of the vote in their most recent election. In most states with recalls, the benchmark is 25%. A few are even higher.

Grounds: In some states, proof of corruption or indictment for a serious crime is required for a recall. California has no prerequisites. Even a political party struggling for relevance or a single person with deep pockets and seething anger can force taxpayers to foot the bill for a recall election.

Removal: In California’s free-for-all recall elections, it’s possible for a targeted officeholder to be removed with 49.9% of the vote with a replacement elected with virtually no support. Had Ravitch been recalled, the leading replacement candidate was a write-in who, as of Wednesday, had 275 votes.

By comparison, removing a U.S. president requires a majority of the House to impeach and two-thirds of the Senate to convict.

For a governor, an obvious solution would be designating the lieutenant governor as the successor in a recall. That is, after all, why the state has a lieutenant governor. And, unlike the vice president, California’s No. 2 is elected independently. Moreover, voters elected governors and lieutenant governors from opposing parties in six of eight elections between 1978 and 2010.

For offices other than governor, ranked choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, could ensure that replacements were supported by a majority of voters.

Replacement candidates: Of the 46 candidates on the ballot to succeed Newsom, only a handful had any qualifications to serve as governor, and most were complete unknowns. There were three times as many candidates, also largely unqualified and mostly unknown, in the 2003 recall election. To get on the ballot, candidates must gather about 7,000 signatures or pay a $4,000 filing fee. Raising the bar would discourage vanity campaigns.

California’s recall system was created in 1911, along with the initiative and referendum, at a time when the state had about 2.3 million residents, and with the goal of curbing special interest influence over state government. The goal remains worthwhile. But after 110 years, the system is due for a tuneup.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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