Recall the Recall

This Progressive Era reform serves only to create mischief in our hyperpartisan age.

The early 20th century progressives who formed the National Progressive Republican League had a vision of direct democracy that included giving voters the ability to recall officeholders before the next scheduled election. One of its leaders, Robert La Follette, argued in the November 12, 1910 edition of his weekly magazine:

The recall will enable people to dismiss from the public service a representative whenever he shall cease to serve the public interest. Then no jackpot politician can hold his office in defiance of the will of a constituency whose commission he has dishonored.

At the gubernatorial level, at the very least, La Follette’s vision has not been realized. In all of American history only two governors have been recalled, and in both cases they were replaced by someone far less progressive. If California’s Governor Gavin Newsom is fired by voters in the September 14th recall election, and replaced by one the dozens of candidates who’ve jumped out of the conservative clown car, that will be three.

The first deposed governor was an early 20th century progressive Republican: North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier. Backed by the state’s socialistic Nonpartisan League, Frazier was first elected in 1916 and won three terms. But in 1919 progressive North Dakotans put in place the recall, despite its governors serving only two-year terms. In 1921, Frazier’s new government-owned Bank of North Dakota was accused of mismanagement, prompting a coalition of conservative Republicans and Democrats to recall Frazier. (The Bank of North Dakota still stands today, and is still run by the state government.)

After Frazier, no governor was recalled until 2003, when California’s huge budget deficit prompted voters to dump Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and replace him with the Republican action movie hero Arnold Schwarzenegger. But by the end of Schwarzenegger’s second term, the budget deficit had doubled and his job approval was a rock bottom 22 percent.

Today, California’s Gavin Newsom has a job approval of 57 percent. Yet he still may get recalled because much of that support is tepid and his voters may not turn out. The outcome may hinge on voters like 53-year-old Democrat Anamaria Young, who told The New York Times last week, “I think he has done as well in the job as any governor could have, given the last year of the pandemic, but I’m not a fan … When my ballot comes. I really don’t know how — or if — I am going to vote.”

Where exactly the race stands is murky because the two most recent polls tell opposite stories. CBS/YouGov has Newsom beating back the recall, with No beating Yes 54-46 percent among registered voters, and 52-48 percent among likely voters (another indication that the most motivated voters are recall supporters). But SurveyUSA, which produced a result only among likely voters, found recall winning 51-40 percent. (The nine percent who were undecided skewed heavily toward Democratic and independent voters.) At minimum, the data suggest that the race is close, due in large part to Democratic ambivalence.

The front-runner challenging Newsom is a right wing talk-radio provocateur named Larry Elder. News stories surfaced last week about Elder making brazenly sexist comments and threatening his former fiancée with a gun. His support in a recent poll is a pathetic 23 percent. But that may be enough for a plurality win in a sprawling field.

Terrified Democratic Party officials are cranking up the panic machine to shake voters out of their doldrums and alert them to the disaster awaiting them if they don’t vote. One big factor in Newsom’s favor is California’s mail voting system, in which every registered voter is mailed a ballot. Those critical tepid voters need only take a minute to check the No box and stick their ballots in their own outgoing mailbox to prevent having their state run by a gun-toting misogynist.

Assuming California’s Democrats wake up in time and keep Newsom in place, they should the very next day turn their attention to recalling the state’s ridiculous recall system. It has failed to meet the expectations of La Follette. In this hyperpartisan age, progressive politicians are not well served by snap judgments. Progressive policies need time to work and earn popularity. Barring impeachable offenses, elected executives should be allowed their allotted time to govern before voters cast their judgments. The jackpot politicians LaFollette feared turn out to be the ones who win recalls, not the officeholders felled by them.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"