California’s Costly Recall Reveals a System in Need of Reform

Recall elections once served a noble purpose, but now they are just expensive boondoggles used for partisan gain.

On September 14, Californians will vote on whether to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, even though the state’s next regularly scheduled election is just 14 months away. Newsom isn’t widely unpopular. His approval rating today is higher than President Donald Trump’s was at its peak. Nor is Newsom under investigation for any crimes or ethics violations. Rather, he is being targeted by Republicans for his stances on issues ranging from immigration and tax increases to COVID-19 restrictions. While Newsom has certainly made mistakes in his pandemic response, including his infamous dinner at a luxurious Napa Valley restaurant, California has fared better than most states in cases and deaths per million residents.

Nonetheless, Newsom joins North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier in 1921, California’s Gray Davis in 2003, and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker in 2012 to be the fourth governor in American history to face a recall vote. In the past 10 years, there have been at least 30 recalls against state legislators, mayors, and city or county council members.

If the Newsom recall fails, California will have spent $276 million to maintain the status quo. If the governor is recalled, he will likely be replaced by the Republican talk radio host Larry Elder, which would be a bizarre outcome since, according to recent polls, Elder is only half as popular as Newsom.

Regardless of its result, the costly and unnecessary recall should serve as a final warning that such elections in many states are too easy to initiate—and thus often arbitrary. In California, for instance, it only takes signatures from 12 percent of the votes cast in the last election to bring a recall to the ballot, and no valid reason is required.

State legislators, then, would be wise to set clear standards for what justifies a recall, as well as a high threshold for calling one, lest they risk wasting tax dollars­­ to appease a disgruntled minority.

Recalls used to happen rarely and, typically, only in extreme cases of criminal conduct or malfeasance. “Theoretically, they’re basically a good thing,” says Tammy Patrick, former commissioner on the Presidential Commission on Election Administration under President Barack Obama. “It’s a way of relieving pressure in the system so bad activities or even criminal conduct can’t go on longer than it should.”

Conceived as a Progressive Era reform, recall elections were designed so voters could protect themselves from “recalcitrant” officials. The process typically begins with a petition, which, if it gains enough signatures, triggers a recall in which citizens vote on a referendum to remove an elected official. In some states, such as Arizona and Michigan, the recall vote spurs another election in which the incumbent faces a challenger. In California, voters are asked to vote twice—first on whether the incumbent should be recalled, and second on who should replace them.

In several cases, the system has worked as it should. California State Senator Marshall Black was successfully removed in 1913 after being indicted for embezzling funds from his employer. Los Angeles Mayor Frank Shaw was recalled in 1938 after assembling what an attorney general called “one of the most corrupt, graft-ridden cities in the United States.” But what used to be a rarely utilized, “break glass in case of emergency” instrument to replace corrupt politicians has morphed into something different: a way to re-litigate close elections, a channel through which big money can exert undue influence, and a way for a small minority of voters to initiate a costly, divisive process for virtually any reason.

“It’s largely a protest,” Sara Hill, associate professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton, says. “It’s a very emotional, reactive process. When folks feel helpless, they go to this extreme measure. In California, Republicans feel so left out in the state, that almost the only tool at their disposal is the recall.”

And California is one of the easiest places to make that protest. Proponents can initiate a recall because they don’t like a state senator’s hair color, and with enough signatures, the recall would succeed. In Newsom’s case, the stated grounds for the recall include circumstances Newsom inherited, such as “the highest taxes in the nation,” as well as subjective opinions like “People in this state suffer . . . the lowest quality of life.” The petitioners also cited things Newsom hasn’t even done yet—and may never do: “He seeks to impose additional burdens by . . . rationing our water use, increasing taxes, and restricting parental rights.”

Minority parties across the country have increasingly used recalls to gain power after falling short in a regular election, or in response to a divisive decision. Democrats brought a recall vote against former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in 2012 (which Walker survived) in response to his efforts to limit the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions. California Republicans successfully recalled state Senator Josh Newman in 2018 because he voted to increase the gas tax, even though the 25 other senators who supported the bill never faced a recall vote. At the state level, there have been more recalls nationwide since 2010 than there were in the preceding 70 years. In 2021, California has caught a case of “recall fever,” with more than 50 recall attempts so far, 22 of which were for local officials—mayors and council or school board members—who are sometimes recalled en masse.

Part of the growth in these elections is likely due to the increased polarization and shift in norms that has led to hotly contested elections at all levels and turned Supreme Court confirmation hearings into intense partisan battles. A simple increase in awareness after the historic 2003 recall of former California Governor Gray Davis that put Arnold Schwarzenegger in office may be another reason for the spike. Either way, much of the blame for the frequency of recalls is due to the ill-conceived recall statutes themselves.

Of the 19 states that permit recalls of state officials, a dozen, including California, do not require any valid reason. Four states that articulate standards still allow recalls for ambiguous reasons such as “incompetence,” which means little in an era when Americans’ views of the opposing political party are at an all-time low. Some states also only require signatures from as little as 10 percent of voters in the last election. In a country where the candidate with the most votes almost always wins—with the notable exception of the Electoral College—recall elections are one of the rare situations in which a candidate supported by 49 percent of voters can lose, only to see to a candidate supported by 20 percent of voters take their place.

Although recalls might offer the appearance of direct democracy, conjuring images of volunteers gathering signatures, they are “really a tool for the elite,” Hill argues. “This is only done if somebody or somebodies give money to make it happen.”

When the attempted recall of Gray Davis was foundering, Darrell Issa, one of the richest members of Congress, who envisioned himself in the governor’s office, spent nearly $2 million to gather the necessary signatures. The effort against Newsom has been bankrolled by big names like John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018, the Orange County entrepreneur John Kruger, the Donald Trump megadonor Geoffrey Palmer, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist Douglas Leone, and the Central Valley gasoline tycoon Stan Boyett. The anti-recall campaign has been funded largely by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and a number of unions.

Despite the expense, the media coverage, and the clown car of replacement candidates, recalls rarely make the lasting impact their supporters desire. Most recall petitions either never make it to a vote or are unsuccessful if they do. Even when a recall succeeds, its impact can be limited and temporary. If Elder replaces Newsom, for example, the Democratic Party still has veto-proof supermajorities in both houses of the California State Legislature. And Newsom could likely retake his seat in the next regularly scheduled election, as Josh Newman did after he was recalled.

Ultimately, then, a recall’s greatest impact may be in changing the way the incumbent governs while in office. “If the people being elected for a term are spending time fighting off recalls, how effective a leader can they be?” Patrick asks. In California, Hill believes Newsom softened his stance of COVID-19 restrictions because of the recall, and worries that politicians facing a recall may be less inclined to make tough but necessary choices. “Being a good leader means making decisions that might not be popular,” she told me. “If a recall is hanging over their head, they might not be willing to make the hard decisions they need to make.”

Unless more politicians want to risk having their tenure in office marred by a recall, or the perpetual threat of one, they should reform state and local statutes in short order.

Creating clear standards for what justifies a recall, combined with raising the threshold for calling one, would eliminate most of the dubious efforts. Fortunately, other states offer a clear example of systems that work. In Rhode Island, a state official can only be recalled for criminal conduct or an ethics violation—an idea that 60 percent of Californians agree with.

By tying a recall to a finding of fact or violation of a statute, Patrick believes that recalls will be less susceptible to the “fungible aspect of a few people’s perspective of what is acceptable for an officeholder.” Other potential reforms include requiring a runoff between the top two replacement candidates or mandating that the lieutenant governor step in if a recall is successful, the latter of which would diminish the use of recalls as a partisan tool.

By limiting recalls to a narrower set of circumstances and requiring support from a larger group of voters, legislators would save states and cities large sums of money that could be better spent elsewhere—and protect their constituents from redundant special elections that most of them never wanted.

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David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization that advocates for political reform.