I wasn’t excited to vote in my first election. In fact, I almost didn’t vote at all. I cast my first and last ballot as a Californian the night before I came to Emory. On Sept. 14, I watched from Atlanta as the country’s eyes turned to the gubernatorial recall in my home state.
Despite electing Gov. Gavin Newsom by a 62% majority in 2018, he was already up for a recall by April 2021. The recall movement gained traction in November 2020, amid a COVID surge, when Newsom attended an indoor dinner party without a mask at the high-end restaurant, the French Laundry. The incident defied his own admonishment to the public to stay home and exposed himself as a phony.
Faced with a choice between Newsom and his horrifying hypocrisies and a long list of challengers who ranged from amateur to alarming, I almost wished I had not turned 18 in time for the election. But beyond the list of grossly unqualified candidates was the feeling that my vote didn’t matter. In a recall system where a candidate could win with under 20% of the vote, representative government was failing. Though Newsom won in the end, the takeaway from the past few months is clear: California’s recall system needs an overhaul.
California recalls give minority factions the upper hand. Voters answered two questions on the ballot: whether they wanted to recall Newsom and if he was recalled, who they wanted instead. If 50% or more voted against recall, he would remain in office. But the second question was decided by a plurality. Even if Newsom received more votes than the challenger with the most votes, he could still lose the election. For instance, if 49% of the voters cast a ballot in Newsom’s favor, he would still lose to the candidate who received the most votes among the challengers, even if that challenger only received about 20% of the vote. Newsom’s name was not allowed on the ballot, and he was not permitted to win as a write-in candidate. Thus, the recall system presents a troubling loophole in California’s electoral system: Republicans could win control of an overwhelmingly blue state with only a fraction of the state’s support.
The voters in a recall election are not representative of the electorate at large. Since recall elections happen in off years, they draw fewer voters, most of them from the minority party. Fearing apathetic voters would give Republicans the win, California Democrats pulled out all the stops for Newsom, including visits to the state from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, and televised endorsements from former President Barack Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). In the last California recall election, which took place in 2003, Republicans successfully replaced the Democratic Gov. Gray Davis with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. This time, the Democrats were able to beat back the challenge, with almost 9 million votes cast in Newsom’s favor.
But how and why did a state special election become so high profile? Since 1960, at least one recall attempt has been made against every California governor. This recall attempt was Newsom’s fifth. Disrupting a sitting governor’s term should not be so easy, nor should it be a partisan tactic. For one, California’s low signature requirement for gubernatorial recall petitions is part of the problem. The signatures of a mere 12% of the number of votes cast in the last election are needed to get the recall on the ballot, compared with 15% in Georgia, 25% in New Jersey and 40% in Kansas. Twelve percent of voters should not be enough to trigger a special election in a state the size of California.
California needs to reform its dysfunctional recall system. One improvement would be to allow the incumbent’s name to be on the ballot, which would eliminate the problem of challengers winning the office even if they received fewer votes than the number of people voting for recall. Another would be to raise the recall petition’s signature requirement to 25%, an option supported by 55% of polled voters. Making recalls harder to materialize wouldn’t allow a disgruntled minority to force an expensive recall onto the state.
Recall elections should not, however, be completely abolished. They give voters a second chance to replace corrupt leaders and ensure that lawmakers remain loyal to the will of the majority. When executed fairly, recall elections serve to uphold democracy, not take it away.
Chaya Tong (25C) is from the Bay Area, California.