How to reform the recall process and make it work for California

Regardless of whether you think Gov. Newsom should be recalled, we can all agree the process is a mess

By Lincoln Mitchell

Gavin Newsom’s supporters see the upcoming recall as a waste of money, distracting him from running the state. The governor’s detractors can’t be too happy with how long this is all taking.

When it comes to California’s recall election process, it’s all about the timing.

A few weeks ago, we began to read reports that the recall might occur “sooner than you think,” meaning closer to September than November of this year.

If you’ve been paying attention, you know that isn’t very soon at all. The COVID-19 pandemic began to be a major policy issue in March of last year. By late spring of 2020, criticism of the governor’s approach was becoming widespread and rumblings about a recall were beginning. The effort to gather petition signatures began shortly after that, but the recall moved from being a right wing fantasy to a real possibility only when Newsom decided to break his own rules and dine out at the French Laundry, a tony restaurant in Yountville.

Recall effort aside, this is kind of a caricature of a Newsom scandal —hanging out with lobbyists and enjoying the good life of the wealthy in a restaurant that most of us can neither afford nor book a reservation. An algorithm aimed at designing a Newsom scandal could not have done better.

That meal occurred on Nov. 6, 2020.

The text of the recall petition does not mention the French Laundry or Newsom’s COVID approach and instead reads like standard conservative kvetching. But to any Californian, it is apparent that it was Newsom’s handling of COVID that mobilized the energy behind the recall. His adventure at the French Laundry supercharged it.

Newsom’s dining faux pas was misguided and arrogant, but not the kind of thing that should get him removed from office. So, in this case, the long delay is not a major problem. However, what if last fall he had done something truly egregious involving major abuses of power or corruption? What if he did something that merited removal but could not happen because of the heavily Democratic state legislature?

In a recent interview with The Examiner, former President Pro Tem of the State Senate David Roberti, himself the target of an unsuccessful 1993 recall effort due to his work on passing an assault weapons ban, said “recalls should only be used if you have what approaches criminal malfeasance in office. I think that’s what they were intended to do in the first place.”

Roberti is right about the place recalls should hold in political life. If frequent and unwinnable recalls over minor issues — or even genuine and predictably partisan policy disputes — become common, it will make governance in California, which is tough enough already, almost impossible. Governors and other elected officials will constantly be fighting off petty recalls and have little time for anything else. On the other hand, recalls can serve an important role when there is criminal malfeasance or similar actions by elected officials.

And that cannot work if it takes almost a year from the misdeed to the recall.

Newsom is not the only California elected official facing a recall effort. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin is in the same situation, targeted by people who don’t like his political views or the platform on which he ran for and won office. Those are all good reasons to vote and work against him if he seeks re-election, but it is neither wise nor sustainable if politicians consistently face recalls simply because some voters, even if that number is a sizeable minority, disagree with them.

If we are going to have recalls in California, or in San Francisco, we need to fix the process, so it is possible to remove somebody who has clearly abused their office, while making it more difficult to use recalls as a way to distract, or even harass, elected officials.

The state should require more signatures and shorter time periods in which to gather them. Currently, the requirement is signatures from 12 percent of the number of voters who voted for governor in the previous election — roughly 1.5 million signatures this time — but the recall backers are given 160 days to gather those signatures. There are also some minor stipulations about the signatures coming from different counties. Overall, these requirements amount to a minor inconvenience rather than an obstacle to frivolous recall attempts.

The state should raise that signature threshold from 12 percent to 20 percent, while reducing the 160-day timeline to 60 days. This will make it a lot more difficult to qualify a recall. However, if the governor, or other elected official did something very egregious, it would still be very doable. It will also make it tougher for frivolous recall efforts to get any traction.

Recall opponents may like that idea but will not like my next proposal quite as much. If the recall qualifies, the Secretary of State should be required to have the recall election within 45 days of the time the signatures are submitted. That will not be easy, but if recalls are only for truly terrible actions by elected officials, there needs to be a way to make them happen quickly.

Under the current system, by the time voters go to the polls to decide whether to recall Gavin Newsom, they will be thinking about vaccinations, returning to school, the baseball playoffs — which could include as many as four California teams — and most likely forest fires and other things that have nothing to do with the issues that drove the recall in the first place. Given the general nature of the initial recall complaints against Newsom, this may not seem like a big problem. But if the governor had committed some kind of genuinely terrible act, he would have had months to spin it, cover it up, enrich himself or otherwise save his political skin.

Recalls against elected officials for policy positions or because a defeated faction remains angry are a waste of time and money. Getting rid of recalls altogether denies the electorate a valuable tool, but one that is easily abused. Making it more difficult to qualify a recall, but then insisting the state implement it quickly offers something to both sides of the debate surrounding recalls.

Lincoln Mitchell grew up in San Francisco in the 1970s and 1980s and has written numerous books and articles about history and baseball in the city. He teaches in Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. For more of Lincoln’s work please visit his website or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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