California lawmakers have approved a state budget deal with a provision that has Republicans accusing Democrats of trying to steal an election. It would create new rules for recall elections – and it’s written in a way that would delay a current bid to recall a Democratic state senator until next June’s primary.
It all started with Sen. Josh Newman’s vote to raise California’s fuel taxes and vehicle fees to pay for road repairs and other transportation projects. Newman (D-Fullerton) had narrowly won a surprising victory last fall in a Republican district, handing Democrats a supermajority in both chambers of the California Legislature.
Conservatives were furious.
Southern California talk radio hosts teamed up to start a recall campaign. They figured Newman’s politically unpopular gas tax vote would surely be enough to doom him at a low-turnout special election, in a district he barely won in the first place – thus destroying the Democrats’ supermajority.
And so, the battle began.
At last month’s California Democratic Party convention, Newman took the stage in his signature bear mask – and yes, you read that right.
“Let’s be clear: This is not about the gas tax,” Newman told the crowd. “This is about taking back something called ‘their seat.’ I’m from Orange County; it’s been Republican forever. My Republican friends think that’s their seat.”
And the Democratic establishment mounted a fierce campaign, with rare fundraising help from Gov. Jerry Brown.
Then, Brown and the Democratic-controlled Legislature brought a gun to a knife fight: a provision in the state budget package made public without any prior hearing just three days before it was approved Thursday.
“The recall provision is perfectly crafted in order to try and help state Sen. Newman keep his seat,” says Loyola Law School Professor and political ethics expert Jessica Levinson.
The proposal inserts five new steps into the recall process – retroactively:
- a new 30-business-day period for voters to withdraw their signatures if they feel they've been tricked into signing a recall petition;
- up to 10 business days for counties to notify the Secretary of State if any signatures were withdrawn;
- an unspecified window of time for the governor’s Department of Finance to estimate the costs of the recall;
- 30 more days for the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to review that estimate; and
- a new requirement that counties must verify every single voter signature, rather than just a random sample.
And by the way, all of this only applies to recalls, not ballot measures.
Levinson says it would stretch the process out so long that Newman’s election would be combined with the June 2018 midterm. “It would have much higher voter turnout, and therefore it would likely have much higher Democratic voter turnout.”
Democrats defend the proposal by pointing to false marketing of the recall effort – signs that say “Repeal the gas tax!” even though signing the recall petition would do nothing of the sort.
“Never before in the history of the recall process have we seen deception so brash, so brazen, so obviously coordinated and so specifically dishonest,” Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León said during the bill's debate Thursday.
But to Republicans, this is just the latest example of Democrats flexing their power for political gain.
“It uses the budget process to consolidate political power,” says Asm. Jay Obernolte, (R-Big Bear). “And even the appearance of that is enough reason to reject it.”
A few years back, Democrats muscled through budget legislation that forced all voter initiatives and referenda onto general election ballots. It helped defeat a measure that would have sapped labor unions – a core power center in the Democratic Party – of much of their money.
“This is sadly what voters have come to expect,” says Levinson.
To be fair, California Democrats are far from alone in efforts to game the system. Red-state Republicans have passed voter ID laws that Democrats say make it harder for their voters to cast ballots. And both parties use the redistricting process to gerrymander their members of Congress into safe seats.
But even so, Levinson says, “just because this is politicians behaving as usual doesn’t mean that it’s okay.”