With the wreckage of the failed recall attempt against Gov. Gavin Newsom still smoldering, California Democrats have reached a new consensus: They really don’t want to do that again.
On the morning after voting ended and recall candidates conceded, the chairpersons of the election committees in the state Assembly and Senate said they’re kicking off a public debate to overhaul California’s recall process.
“Californians are very frustrated that we just spent $276 million on this recall election that, from the looks of it, certified what voters said three years ago and what voters could have said next year,” Assemblymember Marc Berman of Los Altos said at the virtual press conference today.
In unofficial and partial statewide returns, 5.8 million Californians voted to keep Gov. Newsom in office, compared to 3.3 million who voted to remove him. Newsom, himself, says the recall has been “weaponized.”
“The voters want to see a more democratic process put in place that keeps elected officials accountable, but prevents political gamesmanship,” added Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda.
Berman and Glazer said they plan to hold joint hearings as soon as next month. They also want the discussion to be bipartisan.
The Little Hoover Commission, a nonpartisan, independent state oversight agency, also announced today that it would be looking into possible changes to the state recall.
But it’s not clear if any Republicans, who put so many electoral chips on the recall, will get on board.
“Democrats continuously try to manipulate the rules to support their political interests, so it’s not surprising to see them trying to do it again at the expense of voters they were elected to serve,” California GOP Chairperson Jessica Millan Patterson said in a statement. “They wouldn’t have to worry about a recall if they were doing their jobs and addressing wildfire prevention, homelessness, crime, taxes and fixing the broken unemployment department. You want to prevent a recall, do your job.”
Republican Kelly Seyarto from Murrieta, vice chairperson of the Assembly election committee, was non-committal. “I am looking forward to participating in these hearings to ensure that we have a recall process that continues to hold elected officials accountable and protects the rights of voters to participate in our democracy,” he said in an emailed statement.
GOP political consultant Dave Gilliard is skeptical that any members of his party will ultimately back a change to the recall rules. “There is zero chance any Republican will go along,” said Gilliard, who worked on the successful 2003 campaign to recall Democrat Gray Davis, as well as this one.
Sen. Josh Newman, a Democrat from Brea who in 2018 became the most recent state official to be removed from office by recall, also doubts whether any recall reform will be bipartisan. “I would be tickled pink if any member of the Republican caucus on either side of the Legislature stepped up to support meaningful changes to the recall at this point,” said Newman, who was elected again in 2020.
Today, Newman said he will introduce two constitutional amendments to change the process: One to make it more difficult for recalls to qualify for the ballot, and a second that would replace a recalled governor with the lieutenant governor.
The recall’s unusual rules
Once a rarely used — and to many voters, thoroughly obscure — provision of the state constitution, California’s recall is now the subject of unprecedented scrutiny. That’s because though the state’s last Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was elected via recall in 2003, this year’s attempt put some of the system’s quirks into sharp relief.
Unlike in 2003, when Davis was polling in the mid-20s, Newsom faced a recall despite remaining broadly popular with California voters. That’s convinced many Democratic legislators that the law makes it too easy to put a recall on the ballot.
And unlike in 2003, when Schwarzenegger won with 48% of the vote and had more support than the 45% who wanted to keep Davis, there was no such frontrunner this year. Given the quirky two-questioned structure of the recall, 2021’s fragmented field could have produced a candidate like Larry Elder who became the next governor after winning fewer votes than were cast in defense of Newsom.
“California laws should not allow an elected official to be recalled and then replaced by someone else who receives far fewer votes, and I really look forward to hearing from a bipartisan group of experts about how California’s recall process should be reformed,” said Berman.
On the Democratic side, momentum for change has been building for months. Earlier this summer, California Secretary of State Shirley Weber said the state’s recall rules deserve a “second look.” More recently, former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown called the process “awkward and cumbersome and certainly a distraction” while Davis, the state’s only recalled governor, has his own ideas for reform.
“It’s a process that was put in place about a century ago and it certainly bears looking at,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said in a television interview Tuesday night.
There are two reasons that Democrats will likely have an easier time changing the rules after this recall than they did in 2003, said UC San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser.
“One, the Democrats won by the rules of the game and now they can change those rules without looking like sore losers,” he said. “And two, they have the votes.”
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