In summary

Used cynically by wealthy political interests, the recall provisions of the California Constitution cease to align with our democratic values.

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By Mary-Beth Moylan, Special to CalMatters

Mary-Beth Moylan is a law professor at the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, and associate dean for Academic Affairs and Experiential Learning,

Many Californians are struggling with what to do about both questions on the Sept. 14 recall ballot. 

Regardless of political affiliation, the answer to the first question should be “No.” The answer to the second question is more complicated. If you are struggling with it, I am with you. 

The “No” vote on the recall part of the question may reflect either that the governor is doing a competent job, or an aversion to spending $276 million to recall a governor and replace him with a candidate who has support from a small minority of voters. 

Used cynically by wealthy political interests, the recall provisions of the California Constitution cease to align with our democratic values. If you don’t like the job the governor is doing, vote him out at the regularly scheduled “real” election next year.

For comparison, 18 other states empower their citizens to recall elected officials, but few make recalls as easy as California. The California Constitution allows recalls for any reason. So, if proponents pay signature gathers to collect enough signatures, the taxpayers of California must fund a recall election and mobilize the election mechanisms of the state, regardless of whether there is a good reason for the recall election or not. In contrast, some states, like Minnesota, require that recall petitions be based on wrongdoing by the elected official.

In other states, such as Arizona and Colorado, where a showing of wrongdoing is not required, recall petitions nonetheless require signatures equaling 25% of votes cast in the prior election for the office. California’s 12% requirement is lower than just about everywhere else. Preparing for and engaging voters in elections every two years is struggle enough for a state the size of California. Why add in off-cycle additional elections?

Voting “No” sends a message to future proponents that the recall petition power should not be abused, but it does not answer the challenging second question on the recall ballot – the replacement candidate. The mechanism for replacing our elected officials in the event of a recall is even more troubling than the low bar set for the recall process itself. 

Our choices for the replacement side of the ballot have been limited in three important ways by the rules of the recall. 

First, the incumbent is not allowed to appear on the replacement ballot or have his name written in. Second, we have an incredibly short time frame in which to vet the candidates whose names appear on the ballot (election happens 60-80 days from qualifying of the recall). Third, we are only allowed to write in qualified write-ins, who this year were not announced until Sept. 3. With a total of 46 candidates and seven more write-ins, who has time to really investigate their credentials and character.

Being the governor is not a job for someone without a rich resume of political experience. Governors have immense powers as the chief executive of the state. Some states, like Oregon, ensure that the results of their recalls will not leave a leadership vacuum by replacing a recalled governor with another elected state official. Some states, like Arizona, automatically place the name of the incumbent on the list of replacement candidates. In California, we have none of these checks. As a result, the chances of us getting someone who is prepared to lead are slim.

What is on this ballot is not only the fate of Gov. Gavin Newsom, but I hope a referendum on the recall process as well. 

Let’s start a conversation about whether the tools of direct democracy crafted in the early 1900s are serving their purpose of making our institutions more responsive to the people or whether they are being manipulated by undemocratic forces to thwart the will of the people as expressed through regular general elections. That would make this exercise worth the hassle, if not the resources we are spending on it.


CalMatters’ 2021 Recall Voter Guide

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