SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — After watching joyously as the upstart bid to remove Gavin Newsom failed miserably on election night, California Democrats transitioned from defending their governor to attacking the century old recall rules.
Like a perfectly executed fast break, the heads of two key legislative committees held a press conference not to celebrate Newsom’s victory but promise to fix California’s “broken recall system.”
“Yesterday’s election highlighted the fundamentally undemocratic nature of California’s existing recall process,” said Assemblymember Marc Berman, chair of the Assembly Committee on Elections.
Berman and a variety of influential Democrats bemoaned the recently completed recall, calling it an expensive distraction that pulled Newsom away from more pressing matters like the pandemic, wildfires and drought. Berman, a Democrat from Palo Alto, announced his committee would hold a series of special hearings to craft reforms to bring up for vote during the 2022 session.
But before lawmakers set out to overhaul the recall framework in the coming months, a nonpartisan, independent state oversight agency wants to ensure they have a roadmap.
The Little Hoover Commission on Thursday kicked off the first of four public hearings intended to help craft a study it ultimately will send off to the Legislature and governor’s office. The initial hearing examined a few reform possibilities and gauged whether there is enough public support to tinker with the system.
As it did two decades ago, California’s latest gubernatorial recall provided fodder for national news outlets thanks to rules which allow almost anyone to get their name on the ballot. Because California’s system allows for a scenario in which a replacement candidate can win the election without gaining a majority of the votes, a circus-like atmosphere ensued much like the 2003 recall.
The final list of replacement candidates swelled to nearly 50 and included a prominent conservative radio talk show host, a former Olympian and a YouTube star. The backup pool was so thoroughly unappealing, more than half of voters followed Newsom’s advice and didn’t bother to select a replacement candidate.
The ballots that reached the mailboxes of California’s over 22 million registered voters contained just two questions: "Should Newsom be removed from office?” and “If yes, who should take his place?” If a majority votes no, the recall is defeated. Final results from the Sept. 14 special election are still being tabulated, but as of Thursday the recall was being defeated by more than 3 million votes.
California is one of 19 states with a process for recalling state officials, but only it and Wisconsin have used the tool more than 10 times since the 20th century. The California Constitution allows voters to recall statewide officials, members of the Legislature and appeals court judges, while municipalities can craft their own rules. Disgruntled constituents can try and remove state officials if they can gather a total of valid signatures that equals 12% of the total voters in the last election for the office.
Since 1911, there have been 179 attempts to recall state officials and only 11 have landed on the ballot. Furthermore, just one governor has been recalled in state history, Gray Davis in 2003.
In wake of the special election which cost taxpayers an estimated $275 million, a flood of pundits chimed in, saying California makes it too easy to challenge governors and statewide officials. Critics implored lawmakers to explore changes and strike while public outrage over the expensive recall was still fresh.
Some of the changes bandied about in newspaper editorials include raising the signature threshold needed to trigger a recall, stricter criteria for replacement candidates and proof of malfeasance by the subject officeholder.