Why do we have recalls? We can thank Los Angeles

By Soumya Karlamangla

By Soumya Karlamangla

New York Times

The big day is in less than two weeks.

On Sept. 14, voters will make their final decisions about whether Gov. Gavin Newsom should keep his job.

For both sides, the stakes are unbelievably high: There’s a very real possibility that a Republican could wrest control of a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-1.

This race may be the first time you’ve heard of recalls, or perhaps they first popped up on your radar during the 2003 election that thrust Arnold Schwarzenegger into power. But the practice has a much longer, storied history in California.

Let’s go back briefly to 1776.

After declaring independence from the British, some of the original 13 colonies, including Pennsylvania and Vermont, wrote recall provisions into their state constitutions as a way to guard against the power of elected officials, said Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at Wagner College’s Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform. Recalls are a process by which voters can remove officials from office before the end of their terms.

But the idea of the recall did not make it into the U.S. Constitution and instead went into hibernation for more than a century.

“It took a Philadelphia-born doctor in Los Angeles to truly revive the recall,” Spivak writes in his book, “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.”

In 1898, a Los Angeles physician named John Randolph Haynes proposed adding a recall measure to the city’s charter as a way of rooting out corruption. Five years later, the city became one of the first places in the nation to adopt the recall, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Los Angeles, as always, was a trendsetter.

In the seven years that followed, 25 other California cities passed similar measures, the newspaper reports.

And in 1911, Californians voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure that made the state the third to allow recalls. (In the same election, voters legalized women’s suffrage by a much smaller margin.)

Now, 110 years later, there are 19 states where state officials can be recalled. But California, for better or worse, remains the unofficial king of the recall.

This year alone, dozens of recall efforts against state and local officials are underway. In the past 60 years, every one of our governors has faced a recall attempt. And California is the only place where a recall of a governor has made the ballot twice.

Of course, the most well-known recall election in U.S. history played out in California, in which Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, was replaced with Schwarzenegger, a Republican. The star power of that election made it a national sensation.

So, yes, while there’s a pandemic and devastating wildfires that may be distracting Californians, it’s also possible there’s another reason this election hasn’t captured the attention of the state the way it did in 2003. It’s old hat.

“When something happens a second time, it doesn’t have quite the impact it did the first,” said Raphael Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “It has been a surprisingly quiet recall election, given the stakes.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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