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Don’t eliminate the recall. Just reform it.

Now that Governor Gavin Newsom has soundly defeated the recall attempt on September 14, there are demands to change or even eliminate the recall process in California. While I opposed both recent recall elections against governors Davis and Newsom, I continue to support the recall process. Don’t eliminate the recall. Just reform it.

First, let’s look at the history of the recall that is a part of the direct democracy reforms advanced by the Progressive Party at the turn of the 20th Century. A good overview is provided by Ballotpedia, History of Initiative and Referendum in California.

The Progressives gave us those ballot reforms in 1911 that included the initiative and referendum. Yes, many Progressives were Republicans, the liberal party at the time. They were frustrated by the state legislature being controlled by special interests, especially the big railroads. The initiative allows voters to act on important legislation when the state legislature is unable or unwilling to act. The referendum gives voters the power to repeal laws enacted by the legislature. 

Those ballot reforms continue to be useful tools to further democracy. However, they have been abused. The initiative process has been abused the most. Special interests with a lot of money have been able to buy a place on the ballot with paid signature gatherers and heavy advertising.The referendum process has been used less, although it is being used more in recent years. Recall has not been used much at all, although the two recent gubernatorial recalls have attracted the most interest due to the flaws in the recall structure that makes it undemocractic. A governor can be removed by a vote of 50% plus one. However, the candidates vying to replace an ousted governor only need a simple majority, not even 50% of the vote. That is what needs to be changed.

As I stated earlier, I opposed the last two gubernatorial recalls, though I support the process in principle. The recall continues to be a useful tool that should be available, yet not too easy to use. The case of the former mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner, is a good example. Filner was dealing with serious sexual harassment claims, just like Andrew Cuomo in New York. In both cases, the issue made it impossible for each to do their jobs. They had lost the public trust. In San Diego, a recall campaign quickly gathered the needed signatures to qualify for the ballot. Seeing that a recall was on track to be successful, Filner resigned. So even though there was no recall election, the process worked because that tool was available. Cuomo ended up resigning, as well, as the New York state legislature debated impeachment. However that impeachment process would have been long and caught up in partisan politics. We know how that worked in the case of Donald Trump. 

Another issue with impeachment is the implication that a crime needs to have been committed. In the case of the United States Constitution, a president can be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” In the case of recall, the elected official is not being put on trial to prove either guilt or innocence. The voters are simply saying, “You are doing a lousy job. You’re fired.” If I buy a product in the store that fails to meet my expectations, why can’t I return it for a refund? A recall works the same way, though it needs more than just a receipt. A majority of the voters need to approve. They could wait until the next election. However, if the elected official is corrupt and/or incompetent and causing real damage, it would be necessary to remove that official from power as quickly as possible.

A simple reform to the recall of a governor would be to put an end to the second question; who should be elected as the next governor. Instead, the current lieutenant governor assumes the office until the end of the term. That was Cruz Bustamante’s argument when he placed his name on the 2003 recall ballot. Many of did vote for Bustamante while voting no on the recall, and he did come in second after Arnold Schwarzenegger. Unfortunately, the run hurt Bustamante’s career, and he was never elected to higher office since then. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cruz_Bustamante

There have been times when the governor and lieutenant governor are from different parties. Most often they are in the same party. Currently, the lieutenant governor is Eleni Kounalakis, a Democrat. Having both offices being held by the same party, would make it less likely for a party to use the process as a power grab. In addition, the lieutenant governor is elected with over 50% of the vote.

Any changes to the state constitution will have to be approved by the voters. We should do that in the next election, and we should consider reform for the initiative and referendum in addition to the recall. As I wrote earlier, the initiative has been abused more than the recall has. We could increase the number of signatures required to qualify for the ballot. A friend of mine suggested a requirement of a minimum of signatures from every California county. We could require signature gatherers to tell potential signers which people and companies are funding the initiative effort. People should know who the funders are before signing.

Instead of getting rid of the recall, other states might be better off adopting this feature of direct democracy that we have in California. There are a lot of voters in Florida wishing they could recall their governor. Considering, how badly DeSantis is handling the pandemic, he deserves to be recalled.

September 20, 2021 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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