The Trouble With the Gavin Newsom RecallHistorians in the News
tags: California, Progressive Era, Gavin Newsom, ballot initiatives, Direct Democracy, Recall Elections
The recall election coming later this year for California Governor Gavin Newsom doesn’t appear likely to end with his removal from office. Although Newsom’s opponents have gathered enough signatures to require a vote—and conditions in the state could still change—polls show that public support for the effort is far below what Newsom’s critics will need to force his removal.
Nevertheless, the drive may trigger another form of recall: It may finally prompt California to examine whether the 110-year-old state law that governs recalls still makes sense in our modern era of unrelenting partisan conflict.
The law was instituted during the Progressive era as a tool to tame special interests, but the effort against Newsom suggests that it’s become a weapon of harassment and manipulation by Republicans. The GOP constitutes a minority in the state, where Democrats hold all major statewide offices and supermajorities in both legislative chambers, and where Joe Biden buried Donald Trump by more than 5 million votes last year. Once California’s secretary of state gives final certification to the collected signatures, Newsom will become the second of the state’s past three Democratic governors to face a recall that reached the ballot: Governor Gray Davis was ousted in a 2003 recall election and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. How unusual is that confluence? Across all the states, recalls against only three other governors in American history have qualified for the ballot.
This pattern has some California Democrats now talking openly about making fundamental changes to the recall law—an idea rarely discussed since Governor Hiram Johnson, a Progressive icon, pushed it through the legislature in 1911. “This thing is going to be defeated by Newsom pretty handily,” says the Democratic strategist Garry South, who was the chief adviser to Davis in his two gubernatorial races, in 1998 and 2002. “And when this is all over, the legislature has to take a serious look at revamping the processes and procedures for qualifying a recall against the governor of California.”
California’s law establishes a two-step process for removing and replacing an executive-branch official. Once proponents collect enough signatures, the state schedules an election that asks voters two questions. First, they are asked to vote up or down on whether to recall the targeted official, in this case Newsom. Then, on the same ballot, they are asked to choose from a list of candidates who have filed to replace the official. (The incumbent’s name can’t be listed as an option.) If a majority votes no on the recall, that’s the end of it; the incumbent remains in office. But if a majority supports the recall, the incumbent is replaced by the alternative candidate who receives the highest vote total, even if that’s less than a majority (which is possible, given how large the candidate field often is).
Those rules create one of the first glaring anomalies in the California system: An incumbent could be removed and replaced even though a higher share of Californians vote to keep him in office than vote to support any single alternative. (For example, an incumbent could receive support from 49.9 percent of voters, but be ousted and replaced by someone who received a much smaller share of the vote.)
It’s useful to compare Newsom’s circumstances with that of another Democrat, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. In a state that is much more closely divided between the parties, Whitmer faced an even more ferocious right-wing backlash against her COVID-19 restrictions last year. (That backlash included a protest by armed activists who descended on the state capitol and a plot to kidnap and possibly murder her.) Critics have filed nine separate petitions to recall her from office. But because Michigan requires twice as many signatures as California for a recall to reach the ballot—25 percent versus 12 percent—none of those efforts is likely to qualify.
In one sense, this contrast might not have troubled the Progressive-era leaders who created the recall law in California. “They didn’t want it to be hard to use,” Glen Gendzel, the chair of San Jose State University’s history department, who has studied that era in the state, told me. The recall was part of an extraordinary package of 22 state constitutional amendments—including the initiative and referendum processes—that Hiram Johnson persuaded voters to approve in a single election in October 1911. The unifying thread among those measures was Johnson’s determination to create safeguards against the corrupting power of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the dominant economic and political force in the state at the time. Progressives thought “they only had one chance to enact laws in a great big hurry that would ensure the capability to resist further corruption of California government once the Progressives were out of power,” Gendzel said. “What are you going to do if corrupt politicians return to power and serve the main special interest in the state again, namely the railroad? Well, make it possible for the people to recall them, to pull them out, if they prove unfaithful to the people’s wishes.”
Johnson and his allies tended to see politics in terms of interests, not parties; they sought to unite both Democratic and Republican Progressives against Southern Pacific’s concentrated economic power. Although elected as a Republican, Johnson bolted from the party to run as Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president in his unsuccessful third-party Progressive presidential bid in 1912, and when he returned to California, Johnson passed legislation to transform state elections into nonpartisan contests, Gendzel noted. (Ironically, a referendum sponsored by Republican and Democratic party bosses, using the Progressives’ own direct-democracy tools, overturned that law.) The recall as a deliberately partisan weapon probably would have stunned Johnson.
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