With more than 60% of Californians voting “No” in the September 14 recall election, Governor Gavin Newsom has held onto office by a wide margin. The election, which required the allocation of $276 million from the state budget, highlights California’s outdated and ineffective recall process.
California has some of the least strict guidelines in the nation for such a process, requiring only 12% of the last vote cast for the office required to trigger a recall election. Of the 18 other states that have specific provisions for the recall of an elected state executive official, only Montana has a lower threshold for signatures (10%).
Of the 55 attempted recalls of a California governor since the rule’s establishment, only two have gained enough support to trigger a recall election and just one of those has actually succeeded. Both of these elections happened in the last 20 years, with the successful recall of Gray Davis in 2003 and the unsuccessful recall of Gavin Newsom in 2021.
In the internet age, where recall campaigns can gain traction much more easily online, it doesn’t make sense to have such a low bar for such a costly process. When the rule was established in 1911, the automobile boom of the 1920s had yet to make private transportation a reality for most Americans. In these circumstances, It’s not hard to imagine how getting 12% of the population to sign on to a recall would constitute a significant achievement. But in the modern day, the threshold must be increased to compensate for the greater ease of gathering signatures.
Many have also raised questions about the ethics of the recall. Though having a single ballot for the question of whether or not to recall and the question of choice of replacement instead may save time and money, it also means that a new governor could be elected with far less than 50% of the vote.
Dividing the recall election into two parts, the first being the question of whether or not to recall, would generate more attention for alternative candidates in the event of a “yes” vote and give the incumbent party a chance to select someone else to endorse.
For the opposition party, splitting the election in two would increase the possibility of gubernatorial turnover, because the incumbent party and Independents on the fence about the governor would feel more comfortable voting “yes” if they knew that a far-right candidate wasn’t the guaranteed alternative.