In summary

In an hour-long interview with CalMatters, Secretary of State Shirley Weber talks about changing California’s recalls for governor, increasing voter participation and other issues.

It did not take long after Gov. Gavin Newsom handily defeated a recall attempt last year for California Democrats to begin calling for changes to overhaul a process that they complained had been weaponized.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a Democrat appointed by Newsom in 2020 as the state’s chief elections officer, was among them, offering several ideas of her own to the Legislature earlier this year.

But when the dust settled on the legislative session in August, all of the bills proposing revisions to how California removes a governor from office had stalled, with little public explanation for why lawmakers dropped their efforts.

Weber, who is running this fall for her first full term as secretary of state, told CalMatters that, if she wins, she will continue pushing for changes to the recall system, even though anything the Legislature adopts will not go before voters for approval until November 2024 — more than three years after the Newsom recall election.

“Yes, it is worth it, and my staff is working on it now,” Weber said in an hour-long interview last week with CalMatters. “I was disappointed that they didn’t move forward with it.”

Weber supports standardizing the signature requirements for qualifying a gubernatorial recall around a percentage of registered voters, rather than those who participated in the last election, so proponents cannot take advantage of low turnout to target their political foes.

But her main recommendation is to separate the two questions that now appear on a gubernatorial recall ballot: Whether to remove a governor and who should replace him or her. Weber said the focus last year on the field of replacement candidates, led by conservative radio host Larry Elder, obscured a real debate on Newsom’s record.

“Very little conversation occurred about: Does this man need to be recalled? Has he done something so egregious that we want to remove him from office?” Weber said.

Under the system she favors, if a governor is recalled, the lieutenant governor would step in until a separate special election is held. If the recall happened close to the next gubernatorial election, the lieutenant governor would serve out the remainder of the term instead.

Weber argues that this would ensure a replacement favored by a majority of voters. In last year’s election, Newsom discouraged any Democrats from jumping into the race and told his supporters not to select a replacement on the ballot at all. That resulted in Elder winning the second question with barely more than a quarter of the total votes cast, far behind no choice.

“That was one thing that we realized from that system, that even if there had been a recall, there would’ve been the vast majority of Californians [who] did not approve that person,” Weber said. By splitting the questions, “all the parties would then feel comfortable in running for the new seat.”

Here are some other highlights from CalMatters’ interview with Weber:

Keeping the ballot accessible

A contentious battle over sports betting is once again setting new campaign spending records in California. But Weber is not convinced that the process for qualifying an initiative needs an overhaul, which she worries might lock out grassroots campaigns and attempts to deal with issues caught up in legislative gridlock.

“I’m not in the business of trying to make it harder for people to get on the ballot,” she said.

Nor does Weber agree that the role of writing the title and summary for those measures should be taken away from the attorney general and given to a nonpartisan source. Critics argue that, as a politician, the attorney general is not an objective authority, though Weber counters that the office consequently has more accountability.

“You have at least one last hammer, which is the election process. When you don’t have folks who are accountable, then you may end up with something great and you may not,” she said. “I’m not sure there’s any person on the face of the earth that’s impartial.”

Weber is more open to revising the referendum system, which has become an increasingly popular tool for business groups seeking to overturn new laws affecting their industries. She said those campaigns can be especially confusing for voters, a problem she hopes to address with projects to better inform the public about what’s on the ballot, such as an interactive voter guide and television forums about the initiatives.

“When you talk to people, they don’t want us to take [referendums and initiatives] away. That’s their safety net,” she said. “But then they’re frustrated, because it can easily be bought.”

Returning to partisan primaries

A decade ago, California shifted away from partisan primaries, where each political party selects a nominee, to a system where the top two candidates advance to a November runoff, regardless of party. Proponents argued that it would help elevate moderates and engage a broader swath of voters, an increasing number of whom are registered without a party affiliation.

But critics, including Weber, say the experiment has failed. 

Rather than making elections fairer and more inclusive, she expressed concern that the top two primary has pushed smaller parties further from power than ever, by keeping them off the November ballot, and encouraged political gamesmanship to manipulate voters.

“What it has done is that if you’re not a Democrat or Republican, you can see that you’re not going to make it to the fall,” Weber said. “If we went back to the partisan system, it would not be as bad as where we are. Period.”

2022 Election

Your guide to the 2022 general election in California

There are other strange and unintended consequences: Weber was one of many incumbents who won a majority of the vote in their primary in June but nevertheless must run in another election on Nov. 8 against the second-place candidate — in her case, Republican Rob Bernosky, who received less than 19%. Some who ran unopposed are now facing write-in candidates that got as few as 15 votes in the primary.

Weber said that, even with minimal support, those candidates should not be shut out of the general election, which would rob voters of choices. They are “using the only system that we have given them to survive,” she said.

Fixing the campaign finance database

When she became secretary of state last year, one of the problems that Weber inherited was a long-delayed project to update California’s aging online campaign finance database, known as Cal-Access. Within months, she scrapped the rollout, which has yet to be rescheduled.

Weber called that one of her hardest decisions. She said she is unsure about a new timeline for completing the troubled project, though it could be another three to four years. 

“It was a system that was not going to work,” she said. “And no one could tell me why, and no one could tell me when, and no one could tell me what the problem was. So I had to hire an outside person to come in and give us information on the project.”

After a six-month assessment to determine what could be salvaged and how to proceed, Weber said her office is back working on the replacement system and has taken steps to strengthen the project, including by involving the California Department of Technology.

“I’m not running for something else and I’m not running away,” she said. “So it is something that I had to deal with.”

Increasing small business services

In the wake of former President Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, Republican candidates for secretary of state across the country are running on platforms focused on voter fraud. Weber said the problem is minimal and she has few concerns that it is occurring in California, though she is staying vigilant.

“We have such an enormous system of check and balances and checking systems and so forth and so on,” she said.

related

Instead, her biggest priorities for a second term include figuring out how to better support California’s small businesses and nonprofits. A less well-known function of the secretary of state’s office is maintaining business filings.

Weber said she has already begun doing outreach to help small businesses understand what her office can do for them and to help nonprofits that lost their status during the coronavirus pandemic because they were not able to file their paperwork.

“I want to make sure that people know what resources we have,” she said. “We’re already planning for the next term to talk about how we can do more town halls, more meetings — make sure that we have things on our website that really address the issue of small businesses as well as our nonprofits.”

Maintaining reparations task force

Before she became secretary of state, Weber was one of California’s most prominent legislators — and she still holds some sway. When Newsom vetoed a bill last month that would have extended the work of California’s reparations task force by another year, he cited the opposition of Weber, who carried the legislation that created the first-in-the-nation commission.

Weber said she is “very supportive” of the work that the task force has done so far, ahead of its final recommendations in June. “The documents that they’ve produced, the people they’ve interviewed have been really good,” she said.

She added that it might be reasonable to give the task force additional time next year to get the word out about its recommendations. Her concerns about the bill had to do with a provision, added at the last minute, that would have given lawmakers authority to remove and replace its members, which she said would have hamstrung the committee’s independence and set a bad precedent.

“That would be detrimental if people served on the commission and felt that their opinions may cause them to lose their place,” Weber said. “A commission of that nature should have the ability to honestly address the issue and not be concerned about the elected officials who appointed them.”

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Alexei covers Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Legislature and California government from Sacramento. He joined CalMatters in January 2022 after previously reporting on the Capitol for The Sacramento Bee and the...