As California Votes, It Rethinks Its Tradition of Direct Democracy

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Any proposed changes to the century-old recall law are likely to be met with strong opposition from Republicans, who see it as one of the last avenues of influence in the Democratic-led state.

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SACRAMENTO — As Californians went to the polls Tuesday to determine whether Governor Gavin Newsom would be fired, the recall election had already sparked another campaign: to recall the recall.


In a state renowned for its acts of direct democracy, whether banning affirmative action or legalizing cannabis, opponents of this year’s special election say the recall process has turned away from democracy, a distraction from crises. That requires the attention of the government, and wastes hundreds of millions of dollars.

California’s forests are on fire, with thousands of residents fleeing the smoke of wildfires. Cities are running out of water due to severe drought. And some rural hospitals are full of coronavirus patients.

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Many voters who voted on Tuesday said the election was an unwanted distraction that upset Mr Newsom and, some critics said, may have prevented him from making tough decisions.

“The memory is so dumb,” said Frankie Santos, 43, who voted in Hollywood on Tuesday. “It’s not a good use of resources.” She said if she could “absolutely not” write to recall Mr Newsom without invalidating her ballot, she could.

State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and other legislative leaders have already said that discussions were underway to make a constitutional amendment regarding the recall before voters in 2022.

“This is a system that was implemented 100 years ago,” Mr Rendon said, referring to the current recall rules. “We will ask if it is best for the state.”

The election, which cost the state $276 million to administer, has a circus atmosphere at times, not least when one of the 46 candidates on the ballot brought a big bear to a campaign rally.

No one in the state’s democratic leadership is suggesting an end to the recall baked into the state’s constitution. But many are vowing to make it more difficult for him to qualify for the ballot, or to change the rules on how a successor is chosen.

Currently, opponents of the governor — or any other elected official in California — can trigger a recall election by submitting a signature equal to 12 percent of the vote in the most recent election for that office.

In a sharp piece of political irony, there would be a referendum to decide whether to replace this particular referendum.

Democrats may be acting on opposition from Republicans, who see the recall process as one of the few resorts where Democrats control every statewide office and hold supremacy in the Legislature.

“The last thing we need is legal changes that make it even more difficult for Californians to access their government,” said Kevin Kelly, a Republican assembly member who ran in the recall election.

Mr Kelly said Democrats have already tried to make the process illegal by calling it a democratic coup.

“If they are trying to make it difficult or impossible to hold your government officials accountable, that is absolutely something I would oppose,” Mr. Kelly said.

Critics of the recall process say it is fundamentally undemocratic. With a simple majority, voters may remember Mr Newsom, who was well ahead in the polls in the final days of the campaign. But his replacement will be chosen by a plurality.

Polling showed that conservative talk show host Larry Elder, the front-runner to replace Mr Newsom, had nowhere near majority support, and many Democrats left that portion of the ballot blank.

Among Newsom supporters, there were strong feelings about the recall.

Jose Orbeta, an employee of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, was blunt in describing the recalled election during the Tuesday vote.

“Waste of time,” he said. “This is a power grab by the GOP”

He said Mr Newsom had done a “decent job” leading California during the pandemic.

California recalls more than a century ago for a suite of reforms passed from 1910 to 1913 under Gov. Hiram Johnson, a Republican and Progressive crusader. They were the cornerstone of a year-long effort to curb the political power of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which owned the state’s government and economy, controlling politicians, judges and regulators.

Mr Johnson’s reforms broke the hold, changed the state’s electoral system and, through a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1911, established a system of referendums, ballot initiatives and recalls. California historian Kevin Starr, who died in 2017, called it a “re-construction of California’s political and social order.”

It is often reported that Mr Johnson’s reforms – tools apparently designed to curb the influence of big business on California politics – have now become a major corporate weapon. This is especially true of initiatives that can be put on a ballot by activists holding clipboards worth a few million dollars by collecting signatures from registered voters.

A recent example was Proposition 22, a $200 million initiative by ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft to stop their drivers from being classified as employees.

“That’s the big problem here,” said Jim Newton, a historian and lecturer on public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has written biographies of Governors Earl Warren and Jerry Brown.

“It’s not that Gavin Newsom gets 51 percent or that we have Gov. Larry Elder. That’s important, but the general premise is that the purpose of the initiative, the referendum and the recall is solely to prevent the influence of powerful special interests.” It has been tipped over its head and it has now become a tool of special interests.”

Irwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert and dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, argued that the state’s recall process is unconstitutional because of the two-step nature of the process – with voters deciding whether to sit back the governor. is to convene and then, separately, choose a replacement – ​​making it possible for a new governor to take office with less popular support than the old one.

If 49 percent of voters supported Mr. Newsom, 25 percent supported Mr. Elder, and less than any other candidate, Mr. Elder would become governor with almost half of Mr. Newsom’s votes. In that scenario, an Elder supporter’s vote would effectively be twice the vote of a Newsom supporter, Professor Chemerinsky said – and it would violate the “one person, one vote” principle affirmed in two Supreme Court decisions in 1964. . , Reynolds vs Sims and Wesberry vs Sanders.

Californians were not forced to face the problem in the 2003 recall, with Arnold Schwarzenegger replacing Gov. Gray Davis, as Mr. Schwarzenegger received more votes than Mr. Davis on the second question.

Davis, the first California governor to lose a recall election, said in an interview that the ability to recall officials was part of California’s “unique direct democracy approach to voting”, but he supported a change in the specifics of the process.

“For 110 years, anyone running for governor knew he was likely to be recalled,” he said. “It comes with territory — and life isn’t always fair.”

But he argued that the threshold for recall on the ballot — 12 percent of voters’ signatures in the last election for governor — was insufficient in an era that allows interest groups to gain supporters with the click of a button on Facebook. .

“We must go from 12 per cent to 25 per cent,” Mr Davis said, and ask voters only one question: “Who should serve the balance of the governor’s term?”

State Senator Josh Newman, who first experienced the state’s recall rules when recalled in 2018 and was replaced by a candidate who got fewer votes than him in the recall election, said he would vote next year. Initially planned to propose a constitutional amendment that would remove the replacement. race on the ballot. Voters will decide whether the governor should be recalled, and if so, the lieutenant governor will automatically take over. Mr Newman ran against his replacement and won his seat back in 2020.

Yet amid plans and proposals to change the recall rules, there were voters who wanted them to remain as they are.

Jim Mastrosimon, a voter in Irvine, complained that the list of replacement candidates was too long after casting his vote for Mr. Elder.

But ultimately, Mr. Mastrosimon said, he is happy that Californians have called back the election.

“It gives power to the little guy,” he said.

Thomas Fuller reported from Sacramento, Maggie Astor from New York and Conor Dougherty From Oakland, Calif. Reporting was contributed by Sean Hubler from Sacramento, Soumya Karlamangala And Mary Jordan from Los Angeles, jill cowan from Irvine, California, and Erin Wu from San Francisco.

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