There are ways to change California’s recall laws

More and more, voters are calling for reform

By Soumya Karlamangla

New York Times

The looming recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom has revealed something of a paradox among Californians: We hold dear our ability to recall elected leaders from office but believe the process by which we do so to be deeply flawed.

In recent weeks, there have been a growing number of calls to reform the state’s recall laws, as well as a (now dismissed) lawsuit that claimed the upcoming election was unconstitutional. As of July, two-thirds of Californians thought the process was ripe for change, according to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Recalls in California are, frankly, confusing. In this election, some voters are unsure if they can vote on both questions on the ballot. Many are mystified as to how someone who wins as few as 10% of the votes could walk away the leader of 40 million people.

“It’s not a healthy structure,” Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, told me. “I’m hoping after this one is over that we’re all going to sit down and say, ‘There’s got to be some better rules.’”

But, as with so many things, it is easier said than done.

The core components of California’s recall process are laid out in the state constitution, where our right to a recall was enshrined in 1911.

And amending the constitution is a difficult, two-step process.

First, the state Legislature would have to pass the proposed amendment with two-thirds support in each house. (Alternatively, voters could collect close to 1 million signatures in support — although experts say this route is less likely.)

Then, the amendment would appear on a statewide ballot, where it would require a simple majority to become law.

“The big items that have people in a twist — those things are all in the constitution,” Matt Coles, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings, said.

There are some less fundamental changes that could be approved by the Legislature without needing voter approval, such as a ban on paid signature gathering. But the most common ideas would require constitutional amendments.

They include:

More signatures for qualifying

To get a recall on the ballot, the California Constitution requires that supporters collect signatures equal to 12% of the total votes cast in the previous election for governor.

That is among the lowest thresholds in the nation and part of why California is the unofficial recall capital of America, experts say.

“In 2020 alone, at least 14 governors nationwide faced recall efforts, but only California’s attempt proceeded to a ballot,” The New York Times’ editorial board wrote Thursday, saying that was “due in part to those other states’ higher thresholds.”

In the poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, more than half of Californians supported raising the threshold to 25%, a common level set by other states.

State Sen. Josh Newman, a Democrat of Fullerton who was recalled in 2018, said he planned to introduce legislation next year that would raise the bar to 20%.

Illegal or unethical activity only

Currently, an elected official in California may be recalled for any reason, a provision explicitly stated in the constitution.

But 60% of Californians support rules that allow recalls only for illegal or unethical activity, according to the recent poll.

Replacing with lieutenant governor

In some states, such as Oregon and Michigan, a governor who is recalled by voters is automatically replaced by the lieutenant governor.

But in California, as well as most of the 19 states that allow recalls of state officials, the choice is left in the hands of the voters.

Newman said he planned to propose a constitutional amendment early next year to change that, which would eliminate the replacement question on the ballot.

“That’s what creates this incentive to stage a recall election,” he said. “Somebody could squeak through with a very small plurality.”

Under California law, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis would not automatically replace Gov. Gavin Newsom if voters recalled him. (Courtesy photo)

Under California law, Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis would not automatically replace Gov. Gavin Newsom if voters recalled him. (Courtesy photo)

State Sen. Ben Allen, a Santa Monica Democrat, has proposed a different fix. He has introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow a politician facing a recall to also run as a replacement candidate.

Others have suggested holding the replacement election on a separate day from the recall election. Having a runoff between the top two replacement candidates has also been floated.

All these changes, again, would require rewriting the state’s constitution.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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