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California lawmakers set to tighten recall election rules

The state has seen hundreds of costly special recall elections in the last century — including a $276 million failed attempt to recall Governor Gavin Newsom in 2021.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California lawmakers have approved two bills that — if signed by Governor Gavin Newsom — will change how the state conducts recall elections. 

California is one of 19 states and the District of Columbia that allow voters to recall state officials. But after recall efforts this past year drew national attention, including a failed attempt to remove Newsom and a successful localized recall of San Francisco’s progressive District Attorney Chesa Boudin, some began to question if the Golden State's 110-year-old recall framework still makes sense.

The high price tags of these elections also raised eyebrows, with California Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Kevin Mullin tweeting after Newsom kept his office, “A $276 million waste just to reaffirm 2018′s results with an election coming in 2022.” 

Other lawmakers have said it is too easy to get a recall with such high costs on the ballot.

Since 1913, 179 recall attempts have been made, including 55 trying to remove a governor. In Newsom’s case, it took critics nearly half a dozen attempts to finally meet the signature threshold, acquiring nearly 1.7 million verified voter signatures to trigger a statewide recall election. 

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin addresses a crowd gathered at City Hall on May 18, 2022, to honor victims of a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, and to declare his new proposals for preventing hate crime in the city. (Natalie Hanson/Courthouse News)

Now both chambers of the Legislature have OK’d bills to reform how easy it is to mount a recall effort.

Assembly Bill 2582 would require recall petitions to include only the question of whether the elected official sought to be recalled shall be removed from office. If that elected official is then removed from office in a recall election, the seat would then remain empty until filled in accordance with law.

Assembly Bill 2584 would increase the number of signatures needed to initiate a recall, to ensure sufficient support — in a state of 40 million people — to hold a costly recall election. It also creates a review process for potentially misleading statements by parties on either side of a recall or by the person under a recall. 

Recall petitions and other related materials would also be required to print the estimated costs of a special recall election for voters to consider. It would require recall elections to be consolidated with the next regular election if a regular election is taking place in the next 180 days in that jurisdiction. 

“AB 2584 would protect election integrity and improve the information provided to voters in school board recall elections by adjusting the number of signatures required to initiate a recall to better reflect the sentiment of voters in the jurisdiction, require petitions for the recall of a school board member to include the cost of the recall election, and allow them to be combined with the next regularly scheduled election," bill sponsor California School Boards Association said in a statement. School board recall attempts, some driven by Republican funding and frustrations during the Covid-19 pandemic, have been seen across the state from Chico and San Francisco to Anaheim since 2021.

State Senate Republicans, including state Senator Jim Nielsen from Tehama, objected to what he said are just more ways to limit recall elections. 

“Here we go again,” Nielsen said. “If we’re going to change the law … there better be a really, really good reason. These most recent developments in America are not good enough reasons.” All nine Republicans in the chamber voted no on both bills.

But state Senator Steve Glazer, a Democrat from Contra Costa, said he supported the bill because it asks for a higher level of community support for recalls. State Senator Josh Newman, a Democrat from Fullerton, agreed.

“The goal here is not to undermine the recall process,” Newman said. “The goal here is to modify and adapt these processes, for an age that is so different from the one in which the progressive reformists did their work.”

A pair of signs spotted near a voting location calling to replace California Governor Gavin Newsom with conservative talk radio host Larry Elder in the September recall election. (Dustin Manduffie/Courthouse News)

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