Reforming the California recall-replacement process

What a relief. It turned out like the fundamentals of this state said it should all along. But the risk was high. Maybe those polls that showed the recall ahead or close were just rogues. But a process that lets a motivated minority potentially replace an effective but unexciting incumbent with someone elected by a small percentage of the vote is deeply undemocratic. 

It needs to be reformed before an extremist minority puts us through such an attempted power grab again, and maybe pulls it off. So this planting is all about brainstorming for some possible improvements to the process.

As I have noted before, I oppose recalls in principle, at least against the elected chief executive. I explained why in the first in my series on this recall. But for this discussion, I will assume we are stuck with a recall provision, and only focus on how it could be improved. I also am limiting myself to recalls of elected governors (or by extension, presidents), and not to all the other offices that are, or might be, subject to recall.

Minimal changes

The California process of initiating a recall is probably the most favorable to an incumbent’s opponents. Without undermining the principle of allowing the people to recall a governor, there are numerous ways the hurdle could be made higher. FiveThirtyEight has already done a helpful rundown of how California’s provisions compare to those of other US states.

Possible reforms, drawn from experiences of other states, include raising the petition signature requirement (currently just 12% of the number of voters who participated in the previous gubernatorial election) and shortening the time during which petitions can circulate (currently 160 days).

While reforms of this sort are probably a good idea, they are very minimal. There are more fundamental problems with the process, once qualified. These problems do not go away unless the qualification becomes so onerous that effectively a recall election is never triggered. And while some tightening of the criteria may now be likely, it is unlikely the conditions will be greatly restricted.

Somewhat more significant changes for recall

Somewhat more significant options including requiring a claim of malfeasance, rather than we just do not like you, as a basis for petitioning for a recall, or requiring a supermajority to vote in favor of the recall. I do not think the first of these ideas is easily enforceable. (What are the criteria, and who decides if they have been met and so an election is triggered?)

The supermajority idea is attractive. Obviously, a supermajority privileges the status quo, and that is why I normally do not approve of such rules other than perhaps for constitutional changes. Yet in a system based on fixed terms, privileging the status quo is not such a bad idea–the officeholder serves his or her original term unless a strict condition for termination has been met. Nonetheless, I would be concerned about the continued legitimacy and effectiveness of a governor whom a majority of voters–but less than three fifths or two thirds or whatever–had voted to oust.

One could also set a rule that says the recall has not succeeded unless it obtains a majority that is also a greater number of voters than originally voted for the governor in the last election. This is de-facto a supermajority requirement, but it sets the threshold according to the existing electoral base of the incumbent instead of at a fixed level. I retains the same problems I noted with a specific supermajority threshold, but I do rather like the idea nonetheless. See Frozen Garlic for a good statement of the general principle “that recalling an elected official should be significantly harder than electing that same official”; the post has some specific suggestions for implementing that principle. That blog is about elections in Taiwan, where there are recalls and there is a turnout requirement for it to be valid (but it is low, at 25%).

Reforms to the replacement election

Here is where the most important changes could be made. Currently, all state officeholders in California are elected by majority in a “top two” runoff election–unless they are replacing a recalled officeholder. Per Section 5(a) of the California Constitution, “The candidates who are the top two vote-getters at a voter-nominated primary election for a congressional or state elective office shall, regardless of party preference, compete in the ensuing general election.” However, Section 15(c), regarding recalls, says “If the majority vote on the question is to recall, the officer is removed and, if there is a candidate, the candidate who receives a plurality is the successor. The officer may not be a candidate…”

An obvious solution is to clean up this contradiction. Why should a replacement be eligible to be elected by only a plurality when the officeholder being replaced was elected by a majority? This violates the previously articulated principle by making it easier to replace than to initially elect. Among the strange things about recall-replacement elections in this state is that there is no primary. Of course, readers of this site know that we do not have primaries at all anymore (other than for presidential nominating delegates). What Section 5(a) calls a “primary” is actually not a primary; it is just the first round of a two-round majority election in which party affiliation is not a criterion regarding who advances to the runoff (as quoted previously, “regardless of party preference”). In any case, how we label this process is not the point–important though it is!. The point is that there is a prior qualifying round for general elections, but not for the special election that chooses a replacement. This should be corrected.

Any correction should also resolve the current undemocratic “trainwreck” criterion that a replacement can win fewer votes than the recalled officer had not merely when previously elected but also in the same election. If a majority is required to elect the replacement, this problem is mostly solved. But how to do it? Here are a few possibilities.

(1) Replicate the current general-election process, that is, have a preliminary round (“primary”) and then a top-two runoff, in the event a majority has voted to recall the incumbent.

A key problem with this is it could result in having three special election dates to complete the process: the recall, then if a majority votes for it, a qualifying election, and then if no candidate wins a majority, a runoff. Such a proposal is not likely to fly.

(2) An alternative would be to hold the qualifying round concurrent with the recall question. If the recall passes by majority, but no single replacement candidate wins a majority, then there is a top-two runoff a few weeks later. This would turn a potentially three-round process into a maximum of two, and might still allow it to be over in one round.

If this option were chosen, I would explicitly permit the recalled officer to run in the qualifying round on the same day. If he or she is one of the top two, then the recalled official proceeds to the runoff against a single challenger. If a majority votes to retain the previously recalled governor, so be it. A majority has decided it did not see a single replacement who was better than the incumbent after all. (This sub-option that I suggest is not necessary for the general principle of two rounds to be adopted.)

(3) Yet another possibility is to dispense with the recall question altogether. A successfully qualified recall petition simply triggers a special election in which the incumbent may stand alongside whatever replacement candidates have qualified. The incumbent survives unless a single replacement candidate earns a majority of votes cast. It is all over in one round, and on one question. It would have the advantage of forcing coordination among the opponents, because they need a majority and get only one chance at it.

A potential flaw is the incumbent could survive without even a plurality if coordination fails and there are many candidates, which raises those legitimacy questions again. But the goal is to make it hard to replace, not hard to continue. A twist would be to say there is a runoff if and only if the incumbent finishes second or worse to a challenger who has fallen short of a majority. (Such a runoff probably should include the incumbent even if he or she finished lower than second, but I don’t feel strongly about that particular sub-option.)

By now, some readers will be impatient that I have not mentioned the ranked-choice option. Okay, here you go.

(4) Using ranked-choice voting (RCV) is a simple solution that could be done in one round of voting either with, or without, two questions. The smallest change would be to have two separate questions like we currently do, but the replacement is by ranked-choice voting (alternative vote). A better–I think–option would be the single question: rank as many of the following candidates, including the incumbent, as you wish.

I do not favor these RCV options because we have seen we can have dozens of candidates enter. Asking voters to rank a huge field, where at least the major out-party may have several candidates, is asking a lot of the voters. Moreover, with many candidates, many voters will not rank them all, and the chances are high that the winner will still have only a plurality. This is a general problem with RCV in an effectively non-partisan context (i.e. when multiple parties have not each pre-selected a single candidate). I do not favor this, although I recognize it as an improvement over the status quo. Almost anything would be.

Abolish the replacement election

We have a Lieutenant Governor. The main point of such an office is to replace the incumbent Governor if the latter is unable to discharge his or her duties. If a recall passes, have the Lt.Gov. take over and there is no need to have a special replacement election. This makes a great deal of sense, and I’d be happy with it. Voters might not be, and so its chance of being enacted as a constitutional reform in California is likely not high.

Think big

As I explained earlier (see first linked post), one of my objections to gubernatorial (or presidential) recall is that it targets one officeholder. If we are talking impeachment for malfeasance, that’s fine. But in reality, a recall is a just another political process–even more than impeachment, which is also political. If the objection of the potential majority in favor of recall is discontent with policy, the problem is clearly not only with one person. So recall them all! Have a recall process that simply initiates an early election for the entire legislature as well as the governor. Sort of like an early dissolution in a parliamentary system. Go back to the people and get new policymakers, or if the voters prefer, reelect them all.

I do not actually favor this. But I mention to make a point–recalls are about attempting to reset the terms of delegation from voters to their agents in government. So it sensibly should not be used to target a single individual (again, unless there is some process specifically targeting only a corrupt individual officeholder).

So there you have it. These are the ideas I have come up. What are yours? What do you think of these? We desperately need to change this process before a minority power grab succeeds in the future, but how?

There is a California National Party candidate in the gubernatorial replacement election

I remember back at the time of the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election, one of my laments was that, with so many candidates on the replacement portion of the ballot, not one of them was a secessionist/sovereigntist. Well, this time, no such lament!

I recently learned that there is a sovereigntist candidate this time. His name is Michael Loebs, who in his day job is a lecturer in political science at San Francisco State University. He is running with the California National Party, which has styled itself on the model of the Scottish National Party. (Because the state restricts what party names can appear on the ballot even though party affiliations are self-declared by candidates, he appears as “no party”.)

I am not posting this to have a conversation about whether California should have an active movement for (peaceful) separation, although I have felt such leanings myself for about as long as I have been politically aware. Nor do I use this space to endorse candidates. I am simply happy that, if we have to have this trainwreck of a recall/replacement election, at least we finally have a sovereigntist candidate in the mix.

Of course, I will vote NO on the recall regardless of my vote on the replacement question. In fact, you can call NO on the recall an endorsement!

California’s recall & replacement rules are a trainwreck waiting to happen, but are they unconstitutional?

As the voting is underway in the California gubernatorial recall election against Gavin Newsom, polls are showing it quite close. While the no-recall side leads, and objectively Newsom should be expected to prevail in such a strong Democratic Party-aligned state, it is far from a sure thing. In my earlier planting on this topic, I said that, “rather than learn the lessons of its irrelevance in this state, the California Republican Party has learned a different lesson. While it may not win state power the normal way, it can harness grievance, the possible low turnout of a special election, and a celebrity to pick off a Democratic governor now and then.”

As the campaign–such as it is–has developed since my writing those words in late April, it is clear that it is indeed all about grievance and hardly about governance. It is also still at risk of being a low turnout affair, which is where the threat to Newsom’s tenure rests. Will enough Democrats mail back their ballots marked NO, when all the enthusiasm is on the side of the terminally aggrieved?

What there is not in this contest is a celebrity on the replacement side of the ballot. Unless Larry Elder counts. He is leading the polls as the replacement candidate. (I had never heard of him till a month or so ago, and anecdotally, I sense that most folks who don’t listen to right-wing talk radio likewise did not know who he was. On the other hand, I certainly knew who Arnold Schwarzenegger was long before he ran for governor. So, no, Larry Elder does not count as a celebrity, at least not in a qualitatively meaningful sense.)

And therein lies the problem from a small-d democratic perspective: the rules of how California runs this type of election have always been a trainwreck waiting to happen, and such a train wreck of democracy just might happen this time. While the recall question on the ballot is a YES/NO option and thus will be decided by a majority of votes cast, the replacement option on the ballot has 46 candidates, and the winner will be the one with a plurality of votes, if the YES wins the first question. Elder leads polling by a wide margin, but with not even 25% of the vote. If we take his current polling level as a share of the decided vote, it is still only around 40%. Moreover, with no Democrat (or rather none with any hint of visibility) running on the replacement side, there are likely to be quite a few voters who vote NO but then do not select a replacement candidate. In other words, if Newsom loses a close contest, his replacement could be elected by significantly fewer votes than Newsom himself earned on the NO side. California now requires a majority for election of all other offices in the state in general elections (under the “top-two” rule), but a replacement special election is still decided by plurality (and with no party primaries).

This outcome–a sub-majority election of a candidate with less voter support than the recalled incumbent, and which can’t be discounted as fantasy–would be a massive miscarriage of democracy, whatever one’s opinion of Newsom (or Elder). But could be it also be unconstitutional? That is the claim made in the New York Times by Erwin Chemerinsky and Aaron S. Edlin. They build their case on US Supreme Court jurisprudence on one person, one vote. Two cases from 1964 (Wesberry v. Sanders and Reynolds v. Sims) concerned state legislative and congressional districts, ruling against malapportionment in these districting plans on the grounds that it denied voters equal influence on outcomes.

The claim of Chemerinsky and Edlin is that this logic can be extended to a gubernatorial recall and replacement, under the rules California uses: “If Mr. Newsom is favored by a plurality of the voters, but someone else is elected, then his voters are denied equal protection. Their votes have less influence in determining the outcome of the election.”

While I agree with the principle, I am dubious it rises to a constitutional issue, even if we did not have a SCOTUS that was dominated by Republicans.

Please read their argument and tell me if I am wrong to be skeptical of the constitutional claim (independent of the likelihood of the Court actually offering redress if this is the outcome of the election).

Poor recall

It is now all but certain that there will be a recall election later in 2021 against California Governor Gavin Newsom. I oppose recall elections in principle, but this one is especially silly and likely counterproductive for its own promoters.

Recall elections only exacerbate the worst features of the presidential (including gubernatorial) form of government, in that they increase the already inevitably high personalization of the political process of such a system. As if all of what makes for (in)effective government and policy-making can be put on one individual.

In the particular case of Newsom, it is silly in that the number one issue the state (and all governments) have had to face over the past 15 months is the pandemic, and California actually has fared better than other large US states. Is that entirely due to Newsom? No, see my comment about the risks of personalizing government. But he probably deserves some credit.

Its promoters are, of course, Republicans. The Republican Party is so completely out of step with this state that it needs internal reform to make itself competitive again. One might think this would be the lesson it would learn from having won vote percentages in the low thirties in the last two presidential elections and having elected no statewide official since 2006. Newsom himself was elected with 61.9% of the vote in 2018. In recent cycles, the Republicans have struggled to win even a third of the seats in either house of the state legislature.

However, rather than learn the lessons of its irrelevance in this state, the California Republican Party has learned a different lesson. While it may not win state power the normal way, it can harness grievance, the possible low turnout of a special election, and a celebrity to pick off a Democratic governor now and then. But this isn’t the California of 2003, and neither Caitlyn Jenner nor Randy Quaid, nor any of the others in the “clown car” of candidates looks ready to be the next Governator.

As an institutional device, recalls sit poorly with the separate origin (and, normally, survival) of executive and legislative organizations that defines presidentialism. If you need a mechanism to enable early elections, logically you should have a fresh mandate for the legislature, too. Better yet, use parliamentary government (and if you also use proportional representation, you have the greater likelihood that the resulting coalition governments dissolve midterm when political conditions change, and early elections result). In a presidential/gubernatorial system, they just reinforce the worst aspect of the system–their personalization of the executive, and their potential for “populist” solutions. And I say that as someone who thought Arnold Schwarzenegger was a pretty good governor (although I voted against the recall of then-Governor Gray Davis, I voted for the new governor’s reelection in 2006). Or, rather, he was pretty good only after a rocky first year, which only buttresses my point about personalization and populism. He tried to govern by shear force of personality (and he has an unusual measure of that!) and through popular initiatives, including calling a special election for some of them. When it did not work, he eventually learned how to be a governor. The state can’t afford on-the-job training and exercises in populism as it emerges from the pandemic. This specific recall is an even worse idea than the institution of recall is generally.

It is nearly sure that it will fail, at great expense. And it likely will only push Newsom and the Democratic Party father to the left and into ever-greater embrace of unions and other constituent groups, while making the Republican brand even more toxic in the state. Not that I care too much about the latter. The California Republican Party can go hang itself. And if you’d rather replace that verb with another more pointed one, feel free.