Ranked-choice voting: A better way to reform the recall

A more accurate reflection of voters’ preferences

By Michael Feinstein

Special to CalMatters

Following California’s recent gubernatorial recall election, multiple efforts are underway to consider amendments to the state’s recall system.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber — who is conducting her own review — has stated she is seeking opinions from Democrats and Republicans because she believes reform must be bipartisan.

Please seek a third opinion. Here is what you might hear from the Green Party:

Everyone is up in arms that a candidate might win a replacement election with less than a majority of the vote. That can easily be rectified by utilizing ranked choice voting, which allows voters to rank multiple candidates and leads to a majority winner. Ranked choice voting also addresses the structural vote-splitting in the current system, a flaw that would remain in the first round of a two-round run-off.

Don’t allow fetishizing by some of the vote percentage the incumbent was elected with to delegitimize and justify undermining the recall process. California’s top-two elections system produces false and misleading general election majorities by limiting voter choice to two often diametrically opposed candidates, overstating core support for the winner. A more accurate reflection of voters’ preferences would come from first rankings in a multi-candidate ranked choice voting general election, with nominees from all California ballot-qualified parties on the ballot.

Forget about giving the governor’s office to the lieutenant governor if a recall vote is successful. This creates a potential conflict of interest between the two, even if they are from the same party. More profoundly, recalls are about direct democracy. This would be taking the right to choose the replacement away from voters.

Most importantly, “whether to recall the governor” and “who to replace the governor with” are distinctly different questions. But because they are on the ballot at the same time, the second bastardizes the first.

The holistic response is to hold a ranked choice voting replacement election at a later date only if the people vote “yes” to recall. Then start with a clean slate of candidates. This would remove the current disincentive for strong candidates from the incumbent’s party to run in the replacement election because their presence as an alternative could give more reason to vote for the recall.

Under this current dynamic, someone from another party is almost guaranteed to win the replacement election — increasing the incentive for an opposition party to sponsor a recall attempt in the first place.

The current process also rewards incumbents who deflect review of their own performance — which is supposed to be the point of the recall process — toward the suitability of who is likely to replace them. Gov. Gavin Newsom did this effectively by framing the recent recall vote to be more about how bad challenger Larry Elder would be than what voters thought of Newsom’s time in office. But Elder only had a chance because there was no strong Democrat in the race.

By starting from a clean slate with strong candidates from all parties, if a majority of voters prefer someone from the same political party — but who could do a better job than the person they just recalled — they’ll pick them via ranked choice voting. Allowing for that would substantially diminish an opposition party’s incentive to sponsor a recall petition in the hope it can win power via a recall election, that it couldn’t in a regular one, which is one of the biggest complaints against the recall process today.

Under a clean-slate scenario, the rare recalls that make the statewide ballot would be far more likely to be the result of broad-based concern over the sitting officeholder’s governing than a partisan end-run to gain power. That means the signature threshold doesn’t have to be raised to combat partisan weaponizing of the process.

Direct democracy is sacred to many Californians. Let’s use this opportunity to enhance it.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica mayor and city councilmember, a co-founder of the Green Party of California and a 2018 Green candidate for Secretary of State.

CalMatters is a nonprofit newsroom committed to explaining California politics and policy.

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