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Democrats Push for Changes to California Recall Efforts

September 16, 2021by Don Thompson, Associated Press
Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to the press after visiting with students at Melrose Leadership Academy, a TK-8 school in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, one day after defeating a Republican-led recall effort. (AP Photo/Nick Otto)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom handily defeated a recall election that could have removed him from office, but his Democratic allies in the Legislature already are seeking changes that could make it harder to mount such a challenge in the future.

Those changes could include raising the standard to require wrongdoing on the part of the officeholder, increasing the number of signatures needed to force a recall election, and changing the process that could permit someone with a small percentage of votes to replace the state’s top elected official.

“I think the recall process has been weaponized,” Newsom said Wednesday, a day after his decisive victory. 

He added that the recall rules also affect school boards, city councils, county supervisors and district attorneys, notably in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where progressive prosecutors with reform agendas are facing recall efforts.

The governor noted that California has one of the nation’s lowest thresholds for the number of signatures needed to trigger a recall election. In Newsom’s case, recall proponents had to collect nearly 1.5 million signatures out of 22 million registered voters in their bid to oust him, or 12% of the electorate who voted him into office in 2018. By contrast, Kansas requires 40%. 

But the efforts faced pushback from those who organized the recall election against Newsom and questions from experts, who said California’s law is better than many others in limiting requirements that make it harder to recall politicians.

“They’re working in opposition of the will of the people when they take action like that to limit our ability to self-govern,” said Orrin Heatlie, chief proponent of the recall effort.

There is little benefit for Democrats  in pushing changes that could anger voters, said Joshua Spivak, an expert on recalls and senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform in New York. 

“From a political point of view, it’s kind of crazy, and I can’t imagine why they would spend political capital on this,” Spivak said. “Are you going to go to the voters and say, ‘Well, we didn’t deal with the homeless problem but yeah, we fixed the recall?’ It just doesn’t seem like a smart move.”

State Sen. Josh Newman, who was recalled in 2018 before regaining his seat two years later, said he will propose two constitutional amendments: one to raise the number of required signatures and another to have the lieutenant governor finish the governor’s term if a recall succeeds.

“We need to create a system where a small, small, small minority of Californians can’t create, can’t initiate a recall that the California taxpayers spent almost $300 million on and that frankly distracts and really has an impact on our ability to govern for nine months,” Democratic Assemblyman Marc Berman said.

Newsom on Tuesday became only the second governor in U.S. history to defeat a recall; the other was Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker in 2012. The win cements him as a prominent figure in national Democratic politics and ensures that the nation’s most populous state remains a laboratory for progressive policies.

With an estimated 74% of ballots counted, the “no” response to the question of whether to recall Newsom was ahead by a 28-point margin. 

At the Capitol, Berman and Sen. Steven Glazer, who head the Legislature’s elections panels, promised bipartisan hearings in the coming months, with the goal of proposing constitutional changes sometime after lawmakers reconvene in January. Changes to the recall law must be approved by voters. 

GOP Assemblyman Kelly Seyarto, vice chairman of the elections committee, said Republicans will seek to ensure the proposals protect voters’ ability to hold politicians accountable.

The two elections committees will look at recall laws in other states and hear from experts on California’s process.

Nineteen states have some sort of recall process, Glazer said, but only Colorado has a similar two-stage process. The California system asks voters first whether they want to remove the incumbent. Then, if a majority favors removal, the candidate who gets the most votes on the second question becomes governor. In this week’s race, 46 candidates were on the ballot. 

In the majority of other recall states, he said, the only question on the ballot is whether the official should be recalled. If a majority of voters say yes, the office is then declared vacant and filled by appointment or a separate special election.

Changes have the backing of the California Legislature’s two leaders, both Democrats, and their party holds two-thirds majorities in both chambers. But the final decision will come down to voters because the recall process was enshrined in the state Constitution in 1911.

“This is a system that was set up about a century ago and to the extent to which it’s still valid in its current form, it needs to be looked at for sure,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said.

A Public Policy Institute of California survey in July  found that 86% of California likely voters approve of having a way to recall elected officials, a sentiment that transcends political parties, regions, and demographic groups. But two-thirds of likely voters also supported major or minor changes, though Republicans and Democrats split over the extent of the changes.

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