Reforming the Reforms: California Edition

The recent recall election in California wasn’t close. After months of electioneering, Gavin Newsom retained his position as governor with more than 62 percent of the vote, an impressive number that was slightly larger than size of his original election margin.

Considering the cost to taxpayers (about $276 million) and the fact that Newsom was up for re-election next year anyway, California taxpayers can’t be blamed for wondering whether all the fuss and expense were worth it. It may be one of those times, in other words, when it becomes necessary to reform the reform.

Like the National Civic League itself, direct democracy reforms—the referendum, recall and initiative—were creations of the Progressive Era and the golden Age of Reform. It was a time when wealthy industrialists and omnipotent party bosses dominated the political landscape, and the voters were often treated as passive receptors.

Reforms like the recall and initiative offered a safety valve at times when it seemed as if the system did not reflect popular opinion. With the advent of paid signature gatherers, dark money contributions, and fact-free social media content, however, direct democracy provisions can just as easily be used by well-funded special interest groups as by authentic grassroots activists.

And, arguably, the California recall process is especially ill-designed to achieve representative or fair outcomes. There are two parts to the process. Voters vote on whether to remove the sitting governor, and then they vote on the replacement in a first-past-the-post plurality election. In a crowded field of candidates, it would be entirely possible to replace a governor who received 49 percent of the vote (the “no” vote) with a candidate who received less than 30 percent of the popular vote.

A simple fix would be to have the recalled governor replaced by the lieutenant governor until the next regularly scheduled election. Another tweak could be to increase the number of signatures required to initiate a recall, or to require specified grounds for removing a governor.

It’s up to Californians to decide whether or how to change the recall system in their state, but the seeming futility of last month’s recall election should serve as a reminder. The job of the reformer is never done, because sometimes, it is the reforms of the past that need reforming.

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