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Poll finds thirst for major tweaks to California’s recall process

After Governor Newsom easily defeated the recall, voters said the 110-year-old system is due for a makeover.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Following the failed recall attempt of Governor Gavin Newsom which cost taxpayers an estimated $275 million, a new statewide poll finds strong support among California voters for changing the state’s 110-year-old recall process.  

Not only did nearly 80% of respondents in the latest Public Policy Institute of California survey cast the recall as a “waste of money,” 78% want changes to the recall system. Exactly half are in favor of major changes, a 20-point increase from a similar poll taken in the lead up to the September recall.

The Newsom recall has sparked a renewed round of complaints from critics who argue California’s rules make it too easy to initiate a recall and allow for almost anyone — including celebrities and non-politicians — to land on the replacement ballot.      

The poll’s director says the Legislature should capitalize on the growing public sentiment and pursue changes in 2022, even if it means amending the California Constitution.

“State leaders should seize the moment and give the voters a chance to weigh in on improvements,” PPIC president Mark Baldassare responded to the poll’s findings.

The results of the survey released late Tuesday are sure to grab the attention of state lawmakers who have called in recent months for an examination of the recall framework.

Hardly had the recall been called for Newsom, a prominent group of lawmakers was promising tweaks to California’s “broken recall system.”

“Yesterday’s election highlighted the fundamentally undemocratic nature of California’s existing recall process,” said Democratic Assemblymember Marc Berman, chair of the Assembly Committee on Elections.

Berman used the post-election press conference to announce a series of legislative hearings aimed at figuring out how and whether there is enough public support to tinker with the system. Next, a nonpartisan state agency that provides guidance to the Legislature also said it would study the issue and create a roadmap of potential changes.

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.

Despite concerns that a replacement candidate could vault into the governor’s office on a plurality, Newsom made quick work of the Republican-led recall effort, with 62% of voters marking no on the recall.

Since the special election, a chorus of state Democrats have publicly expressed support for changing the system, including Secretary of State Shirley Weber.

Appointed by Newsom last year, the state’s top elections official has called the process old and, in some ways, unfair or ambiguous. She said the state failed to address confusion following the high-profile 2003 recall and is urging the Legislature to act this time around.

“There were enough issues raised, enough lawsuits filed and a host of things that came to my door that said very clearly this thing is not very clear for what needs to happen,” Weber said Monday during a Little Hoover Commission hearing. “I’m not sure if [the recall] is ever administered equally and fairly from election to election.”

Tuesday’s poll gauged voters’ thirst for a few of the main proposals that have been discussed so far by lawmakers and political science experts in recent weeks. While 86% responded that it was a “good thing” the state constitution allows for ways to recall elected officials, just 21% said the rules are “basically fine the way it is.”

According to the PPIC, a majority of likely voters support changes like holding a top-two runoff if no replacement candidate secures 50% of the vote, enacting a malfeasance standard in which officials could only be recalled for illegal or unethical activity and raising the signature threshold from the 12% to 25% of the total votes cast in the previous election for the subject office. Furthermore, 70% said they were in favor of the state creating a bipartisan commission tasked with brainstorming the best reforms to place on the November 2022 ballot.  

As for the two main political parties, Democrats were much more likely to support the changes, although 56% of Republicans said they were in favor of switching to a top-two runoff.

Lawmakers will have the opportunity to make minor changes to the recall code during the upcoming legislative session but adopting the ideas proposed in the poll will require voter approval. Putting any reforms before voters will require a two-thirds vote in both legislative chambers.

Baldassare says the poll should be viewed as a call to action.

“Voters can have short memories and the 2021 recall may soon be forgotten. Right now, the window is open for reform,” he concluded.

The PPIC poll featured 76 questions and the results are taken from 2,290 California adults with a 3.2% margin of error.    

The latest PPIC survey also examined voters’ thoughts on the state economy, which continues to be hampered by high levels of unemployment.  

Nearly 70% believe income inequality remains a problem and that the gap between the rich and poor will grow by 2030. Asked about the economic outlook over the next 12 months, more than half said the state was in for bad times while 57% said achieving the American Dream is harder in California compared to elsewhere in the U.S.

“Solid majorities of Californians say the gap between rich and poor in their region is increasing and that children growing up in California today will be worse off than their parents,” said Baldassare.

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