In summary

California law should be changed to require the lieutenant governor to serve if a recall is successful. It would stop gubernatorial recall abuse, focus both political parties on winning general elections and avoid many of the $215 million in costs for this exercise in democracy.

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By Paul Kronenberg, Special to CalMatters

Paul Kronenberg is a retired trade association executive
with 40-plus years experience working with California’s
Legislature and regulatory agencies,

The move to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom has Democratic politicos scrambling to revamp recall laws in various ways, but all miss the obvious answer. Rather than urge the Legislature to erect more barriers, which seems counterintuitive for a Democrat supermajority vested in expanding voter access, we need make only one change to California’s election law: Automatically require the lieutenant governor to fill the remainder of the term.

Under the law today, we elect a lieutenant governor, who runs separately on the ballot (as in 17 other states) to serve in case the governor is unable to fulfill his or her duties. Eleni Kounalakis was elected in 2018 for just this situation. Being recalled clearly creates an inability for the governor to serve and should trigger the state’s constitutional provision on lieutenant governor ascension.

The parties have split the two offices in several California elections. During Jerry Brown’s second term from 1979 to 1983, for instance, Republican Mike Curb was lieutenant governor. Californians split the ticket again in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s second term, electing Democrat John Garamendi.  

Democratic consultant and former Gray Davis adviser Garry South suggests requiring more signatures to qualify a recall for the ballot, toughening allowable reasons for being recalled, establishing distributive partisan signature requirements, and increasing filing requirement signature totals. These proposals certainly would curtail gubernatorial recalls. But all seem guaranteed to perpetuate political party power and undercut the voters’ ability to effect needed change, as envisioned during the progressive movement when the recall provision was enacted. 

The Legislature should reject changes to election law that create barriers to voter redress of ineffective or criminal action by state officials. The law should be changed to require the lieutenant governor to serve if a recall is successful. That would stop gubernatorial recall abuse and focus both political parties on winning general elections. It also would avoid much of the $215 million in costs for this exercise in democracy. 

Because not enough time remains between now and the Sept. 14 recall election to effect a change, voters can exercise their will on this proposal in the short term by writing in Eleni Kounalakis, the lieutenant governor. Elections Code Section 11322 requires a write-in space on the recall ballot. The law requires the secretary of state to have a certified list of write-in candidates. Anyone not on that list is rejected when votes are tallied. Potential write-ins have until Aug. 31 to secure a spot on the list, which is only available to the public online at the California Secretary of State’s website starting Sept. 3. Lt. Gov. Kounalakis should be seeking a spot on that list.

Not surprisingly, this option is being ignored by both parties. Recall proponents no doubt fear further ballot dilution and a legitimate Democratic alternative if the recall succeeds. Recall opponents, wary of repeating the 2003 campaign messaging confusion when Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante ran as a replacement in case Gray Davis was recalled, also are silent. 

Voters can step into this vacuum by urging Kounalakis to stand as a write-in and then writing her name in on the ballot’s second question.

There are a multitude of reasons to retain or recall Newsom. Voters have to decide for themselves whether governing decisions (the Employment Development Department breakdown, public health responses to COVID-19 or budget priorities with $76 billion in surplus revenue) or managing events beyond anyone’s control (response to forest fires and a crippling drought coupled to a lack of water storage) warrant a yes or no vote on the recall.

For those voting not to recall Newsom, it’s still best to write in Eleni Kounalakis. They can express a preference for commonsense reform to the recall by doing so. Otherwise, the ballot looks like a multi-candidate GOP primary election in which the winner has significantly less than a majority of votes.

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