Gavin Newsom's victory could trigger reform of California's recall process

Key Points
  • California Gov. Gavin Newsom secured a historic victory against a recall effort Tuesday night.
  • Now numerous lawmakers are looking to reform the 110-year-old process that allows for state officials to be removed. 
  • Lawmakers have contended that it's far too easy to put a recall on the ballot and is far too expensive to do so, especially with the $276 million price tag of this year's recall election. 
California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks after the polls close on the recall election, at the California Democratic Party headquarters in Sacramento, California, September 14, 2021.
Fred Greaves | Reuters

California Gov. Gavin Newsom secured a historic victory against a recall effort Tuesday night, and now some lawmakers are looking to reform the 110-year-old process that allows state officials to be removed. 

Even before Californians began to cast their ballots, some lawmakers had contended that it's far too easy to put a recall on the ballot and far too expensive to do so. The hefty price tag of this year's exercise gave them more fodder to call for reform. 

"A $276 million waste just to reaffirm 2018's results with an election coming in 2022," California Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Kevin Mullin tweeted Tuesday night after the results of the election were called. 

Efforts to recall elected officials are more common in California than one might think. Since 1913, 179 attempts have been made, and 55 of them tried to remove a governor. 

However, recalls rarely qualify for the ballot. The latest effort to oust Newsom was the second in the state's history to trigger a special election. The first was in 2003, when then-Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, lost a recall effort and was replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

The Republican-led recall effort against Newsom was born out of frustrations over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic last year, with strict state health orders that implemented lockdowns and mask mandates. Leaked photos of him maskless at a high-end dinner party during that time helped the movement gain traction in early November. 

Eventually, the effort garnered the nearly 1.5 million signatures required to make the ballot, which is 12% of the voter turnout in the last election for governor. 

California's recall laws allowed for the special election to occur just 14 months before Newsom would be on the ballot for reelection anyway, spurring calls for reform. 

Aside from the enormous expense that comes with a recall election, Secretary of State Shirley Weber acknowledged one of the key flaws in the process: how it determines who replaces the recalled governor, ABC7 News reported Tuesday. 

If more than 50% of California voters had decided to vote "yes" on recalling Newsom, the frontrunner of a crowded field of opponents would have been able to replace him. That is, the frontrunner would become governor even if they received far less than 50% of the overall vote on the second question on the ballot: Who should take Newsom's place should he be recalled? 

"It is somewhat quirky in that sense that Gavin Newsom could actually lose and then we'd end up with a person who didn't have more than 20% of the vote," Weber told ABC7 News. "Which means the vast majority of California would be rejecting that person."

"What can we do to really make it a system that we believe in?" said Weber, according to ABC7 News. "We're going to do some work on that."

State lawmakers have tried to change the recall process for years. Most recently, state Sen. Josh Newman, a Southern California Democrat, introduced measures that he argues are necessary for reform. 

Newman, who won back his state Senate seat in 2020 after being recalled in 2018, introduced Senate Bill 663 late last year. It would allow targets of recall efforts to access the lists of petition signers and ensure that the signers were not misled with false information when they added their name to support a recall. 

Current laws allow only election officials to access the names to validate signatures. 

The bill would also change the time period allowed for signers to remove their names from a petition, extending it from 30 days after a recall petition's signatures are certified to 45 days. 

The state Senate's elections committee already approved Senate Bill 663 as well as another measure from Newman, Senate Bill 660, which would ban the practice of paying petition circulators for each signature they obtain for recall efforts as well as other state and local initiatives. The bill argues that this would eliminate an incentive to deceive voters in order to collect more signatures. 

If both of Newman's bills are approved by the full state legislature, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1, they will take effect next year. 

A recent poll by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies shows that the majority of California voters favor the recall process, with 75% describing it as a "good thing." 

However, the poll also showed that voters supported several proposals to reform the process.

One proposal would increase the percentage of voter signatures required to qualify for a recall election from 12% to 25%, a suggestion that garnered 55% of support from voters in the poll. 

Another proposed to toughen the rules that apply to recalling elected officials in the state so that they can only be removed from office for causes such as unethical or illegal behavior. Fifty-nine percent of voters favored such a change. 

A third proposed to make it more difficult for individuals to run in a gubernatorial recall election by raising the filing fee, currently $4,000, and the 7,000 voter-signature threshold needed to officially register as a candidate. This proposal garnered 51% of voters' support. 

"The results show that at the time of the Newsom recall, most voters, including a majority of Democrats, support recall elections in principle, but also favor reforms that would impose somewhat higher hurdles in bringing future recall elections to the ballot," said Eric Schickler, co-director of the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies.