In summary

The Little Hoover Commission’s recommendations will strengthen our recall system while also better protecting democratic principles.

By Pedro Nava, Special to CalMatters

Pedro Nava is Chair of the Little Hoover Commission.

Last year, California held its second gubernatorial recall election in less than 20  years – drawing significant attention to this century-old tool of direct democracy. 

In response, the Little Hoover Commission – the state’s independent government watchdog – launched its own assessment of California’s system for recalling state officials. Our study included three hearings, at which commissioners heard testimony from Secretary of State Shirley Weber, former Secretary of State Bill Jones, a wide array of scholars and other experts. We also received more than 150 comments from members of the public.

Here is what we learned.

Fundamentally, the state’s recall system must be retained. It’s overwhelmingly popular with Californians and rightly so. Voters should be able to fire an elected official mid-term.

However, the commission found weaknesses within current recall procedures that undermine electoral integrity and democratic principles. We should fix what is broken.

Most importantly, the existing recall process allows for the possibility of an undemocratic outcome. 

California’s recall ballot asks two separate questions of voters: whether the office-holder should be recalled, and if so, who should replace that person? The problem is that while the officer-holder must obtain more than half of the vote on the first question to stay in office, a candidate on the second question needs only a plurality to win. If the office-holder is recalled, whoever gets the most votes on the second question takes the office – no matter what share of the vote they receive.

This means that a replacement candidate can succeed to office while receiving far fewer votes than a recalled incumbent. In practical terms, let’s say that 55% of the voters had voted to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom. That means that 45% wanted to keep him as governor, but he would have been replaced by someone who was supported by, say, 30% of the electorate. That makes no sense.

The other big problem is the signature requirement to trigger a recall election. That figure is based on the number of votes cast in the last election for the office. This creates a needlessly unstable threshold, since turnout can vary significantly between elections. 

In our new report, “Reforming the Recall,” the commission offers two major reforms to address these weaknesses:

First, California should replace the existing two-part recall ballot with a “snap” special election, in which the targeted official appears on the ballot alongside the replacement candidates. The voter faces a single, simple question: which of the candidates, including the incumbent, should complete the term? This approach simplifies the recall process, allows voters to choose between the incumbent and the replacement candidates, and protects the democratic principle that the person who receives the most votes should win. 

Second, the state should change the signature requirement for qualifying a recall attempt against statewide office-holders from 12% of the vote in the last election for the office to 10% of registered voters. Adjusting the threshold would provide greater consistency in the recall process. It would also increase the number of signatures needed to put a recall on the ballot, thus requiring broader support for recall efforts to reach the ballot and helping deter overuse of the recall.

The commission also identified several procedural changes that would give election officials more time to administer elections and provide greater clarity around the recall process.

Most of the commission’s recommendations – including the two major changes highlighted above – must be approved by voters. State legislators should work to place these reforms on the November 2022 ballot. Each reform should be referred to voters as a separate question to empower voters to choose the specific changes that they think should be adopted.

The recall is a central component of California’s electoral system that affirms voters’ power over elected officials. The commission’s recommendations will strengthen our recall system while also better protecting democratic principles. 

The push for much-needed changes to the recall system will only dissipate as time passes. California must act now to ensure it does not miss its opportunity for reform.

_____

Pedro Nava has also written about what California can do to improve children’s mental health, meaningful police reform starts with training, solutions needed to continue government meetings online, additional actions necessary to preserve small businesses, and overhauling California’s mental health care system.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: commentary@calmatters.org