Recall: Another Weird California Tradition
After five cross-country moves, I’ve voted in many California elections. But this is the first time for me to experience an election to recall the state’s governor. The last time, in 2003, I watched from New Jersey as Californians voted to oust Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, who was succeeded by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. “What gives with your sometime state?” friends asked. “Beats me,” I’m sure I responded. This time, I put the question to a California native who told me the state’s recall tradition reflects its residents’ strong adherence to populism.
Other observers have called it crazy, nonsensical, undemocratic, even unconstitutional. Also unnecessary and a waste of taxpayers’ money. This year’s effort is expected to cost $276 million.
The California Secretary of State’s website informed me that there have been 179 recall attempts of state officials since 1913. “Eleven recall efforts collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and of those, the elected official was recalled in six instances. One recall effort is currently qualified for the ballot to be held on September 14, 2021.”
Even before receiving my vote-by-mail ballot sent to all registered voters, I was confused about how it all worked. First of all, unless an incumbent is found guilty of a crime and needs to be removed from office immediately, — or dies or just quits — even then, what’s the lieutenant governor for if not to step into the top spot when needed? That was part of the appeal to me for Newsom’s election last time. I figured he’d had some on-the-job training or at least knew what to expect.
And, why go to all this trouble to replace a governor whose term will end in a little more than a year? And who are all these 46 candidates I heard were lining up just to fill out the recalled governor’s term? And how did they make it onto the ballot in the first place? If you think all of this is complicated, wait till you hear the answer to that. They must obtain signatures from a percentage of votes cast in the last election for the office, which obviously is a figure that changes from election to election. This time it was 12 percent, which for the current recall, it was about 1.5 million signatures.
I got those figures from an online piece by longtime Los Angeles Times political columnist George Skelton who examined the argument made by UC Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky “about possible legal flaws in California’s 110-year-old recall system,” [one in particular means] “it’s possible that Newsom could be recalled…by a bare majority of votes…he could receive 49.9 percent of the vote and still be dumped…Then…his successor could be elected among the large field by a small plurality of, say, only 25 percent.”
Skelton concludes, “So, Newsom could receive nearly twice as many votes as the winner but still lose.” Huh?
The arrival of my ballot only added to the confusion. I puzzled over the rules as I examined its two separate sections. The top section required merely a yes or no vote on whether the current governor, Democrat Gavin Newsom, should be removed from office. If my vote was to be no, I was home free. If I voted yes, then which of the 46 listed candidates would I prefer? And to complicate matters more, there was a space at the bottom for writing in a candidate. I was glad to go online at LA Times.com and see I was not the only one confused. Some people wondered whether in order to assure the governor’s remaining in office, they should write in his name. I had pondered that until I found these words somewhere on the ballot instruction: “Do not vote for more than one person.” So that would rule out writing in Newsom’s name after, in effect, checking the no recall box. According to LA Times’ Skelton, it would invalidate the ballot.
Since returning to live in California, once more, I have surprised myself by becoming a fan of mail-in ballots. As I wrote in Time for Vote By Mail, my conversion came about during the coronavirus pandemic when Milwaukee voters were forced to stand in freezing cold rain for hours to vote because of reduced facilities, one of many shenanigans perpetrated in recent past elections throughout city areas, especially, to make voting difficult. This has been done, as Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia has explained benignly, because “Some people don’t want some people to vote.”
So, after puzzling over the confusing recall ballot and signing up for tracking service – if it’s important enough for packages from Amazon, it’s certainly worth the same for my vote – I walked over to the nearest drop-box as I had the last time and began checking until the email message that assured me “Your ballot has been collected and your vote recorded.” Good. One less thing to worry about.
Political columnist Skelton continues to join others fretting about the state’s recall system. A more recent column was headed, “California recall system must be reformed. It’s bad for taxpayers and, some say, democracy.”