Why Californians—of Both Parties—Should Embrace the Recall

Even When You Don’t Want to Remove a Politician, the Vote Provides a Healthy Democratic Dose of Self-Examination

Why Californians—of Both Parties—Should Embrace the Recall | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

Protestors carry signs in the leadup to the historic October 7, 2003, recall election to replace Gov. Gray Davis. Courtesy of Associated Press.

Californians should love me, even when I’m used against a politician you like.

At the very least, I hope you’ll appreciate me if Gov. Gavin Newsom, who won office overwhelmingly in 2018 and remains popular in polls, ends up facing a recall election later this year.

Newsom’s team is already attacking me as an extreme or anti-democratic tool, and claiming that holding a recall vote would be a waste of money. But those attacks, while understandable, are misguided. When you go after me, you’re going after an essential feature of democracy.

I, the recall, am an exquisitely simple and direct democratic tool that allows citizens to petition for a vote to remove elected officials from office before their terms are over. My petitions and elections are quite valuable, even when the targeted official survives the recall attempt (as most do—I am merciful). The threat alone of petitions on my behalf encourages elected officials to pay more attention to constituents. And recall elections allow for swifter public challenges to failing leaders and difficult controversies.

The wisdom of providing angry citizens with a democratic and non-violent means of removing public officials has never been more apparent.

Since I’m not a legal instrument at the federal level in the United States, American voters just spent four years with no immediate and democratic way to consider the removal of a lawless, authoritarian, and dangerous president. Your weak constitutional tools for removal—the 25th Amendment and impeachment—depend not on voters but on supermajorities of elected officials acting against a president who may be their political ally.

Imagine if I had been available these past four years—could I have provided the checks and balances that Congress neglected? Would I have been a better way for Americans to blow off steam, as opposed to posting on Twitter? Could I have—dare I say—tempered or even removed the outgoing president? In my absence, your nation descended into anti-democratic rage, extremism, and political violence.

Other world democracies, with parliamentary or multi-party systems far more advanced than yours, allow the peaceful fall of prime ministers or governments at any time. But at the national level, Americans cling to the self-immolating paradox memorably satirized by the humorist Will Rogers: “On account of being a democracy and run by the people, we are the only nation in the world that has to keep a government four years, no matter what it does.”

In this context, California’s long embrace of me is a difference worth celebrating. Since voters added me to the state constitution in 1911, Californians have considered recalls of hundreds of local officials, and attempted the removal of state officials 165 times. Here, people don’t have to wait until the next election to eject dangerous politicians. You have the right to use me to fire them at any time.

My biggest moment in the spotlight was in 2003, when California became the first state since 1921 to recall a governor. The recall campaign that threw out Gray Davis and elected Arnold Schwarzenegger was a huge spectacle, and a moment of real civic engagement; 99 percent of Californians told pollsters they were following news about me back then.

I’m flashing back to 2003 right now, as a petition slowly gathers signatures to recall Newsom. Once again, I originated with Republicans and right-wing activists who had passion but not much money or political experience. The original proponent of pulling the plug on Newsom was a retired Yolo County sheriff’s deputy named Orrin Heatlie, who decided to use me, the recall tool, after watching a YouTube video of Newsom supporting undocumented immigrants.

The effort Heatlie instigated, after fits and starts (there were also four other petitions against the governor), now has backing from Republican consultants and office-holders, too. These establishment folks are using me to raise money—and battling the grassroots proponents for control.

Imagine if I had been available these past four years—could I have provided the checks and balances that Congress neglected? Would I have been a better way for Americans to blow off steam, as opposed to posting on Twitter? Could I have—dare I say—tempered or even removed the outgoing president?

This time around, I’m an underdog because the politics of many of my backers are way too Trumpian for California. Some stated reasons on the petition knock Newsom for actions that are popular—like his sanctuary state protections for immigrants, his support for criminal justice reform, and his insistence that parents have their children vaccinated. The governor’s pandemic management mistakes and his French Laundry dinner don’t appear on the petition as reasons to remove him, because the petition was filed in February 2020, before COVID had shut down much of the state.

But none of this means I’m doomed. I can win again in California if support for me can grow beyond the right. All it might take is a candidate with broad popular appeal. That’s what California got in 2003, when the centrist Schwarzenegger essentially commandeered the recall campaign from the wingnuts and convinced Californians that he could take on their broken governing and budget systems.

Despite Schwarzenegger’s efforts, those systems remain broken, and Newsom, for all his ambitious proposals, hasn’t fixed them. He’s also struggled to respond consistently to the pandemic. So, if a top-notch crisis manager with a real commitment to systemic change were to emerge, I could once again throw out a California governor.

As of right now, that seems unlikely to happen. The best-known replacement candidate, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, couldn’t even manage the lease details of an office building.

And Newsom looks like the sort of deft politician who responds to the threat of me by making adjustments, and ultimately emerging more popular. I can improve politicians in this way. That’s why I take some pride in the fact that—in the weeks since it first appeared I’d be leaving South America (I’m popular in Peru) to come to California in 2021—the governor has shaken up his staff, and offered more focused plans to reopen schools and support idled businesses and workers.

Still, at the risk of appearing self-promotional, I would suggest that having a recall election might be healthy for your state. The pandemic has revealed many urgent problems with your governance, especially centralization of money and power in Sacramento that has left local governments too weak to respond effectively in emergencies.

And California has spent the last four years understandably focused on fighting off attacks from the Trump administration. It’s been too long since the Golden State took a hard look at itself, and whether its public institutions are strong enough to handle the challenges of this very tough century.

I, the recall, would be the perfect vehicle for that kind of self-examination.


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