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Democrats could reform ‘weaponized’ California recall system

Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 10:13 AM CDT|Updated: 17 hours ago
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Hours after California Gov. Gavin Newsom beat back a recall election that could have removed him, his fellow Democrats in the state Legislature said Wednesday they will push for changes to make it more difficult to challenge a sitting governor.

Those reforms could include increasing the number of signatures needed to force a recall election, raising the standard to require wrongdoing on the part of the officeholder and changing the process that could permit someone with a small percentage of votes to replace the state’s top elected official.

“I think the recall process has been weaponized,” Newsom said a day after his decisive victory. He added that the recall rules affect not just governors but school boards, city councils, county supervisors and district attorneys, notably in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where liberal prosecutors are being challenged.

The governor noted that California has one of the nation’s lowest thresholds for the number of signatures needed to trigger a recall election. Proponents had to collect nearly 1.5 million signatures out of California’s 22 million registered voters in their bid to oust him, or 12% of the electorate who voted him into office in 2018.

Newsom declined to say what reforms he favors, saying he is too close to the process as a recall target who could someday face another attempt to remove him.

Other Democrats were more specific.

“We need to create a system where a small, small, small minority of Californians can’t create, can’t initiate a recall that the California taxpayers spent almost $300 million on and that frankly distracts and really has an impact on our ability to govern for nine months,” Assemblyman Marc Berman said.

State Sen. Josh Newman, who himself was recalled in 2018 before regaining his seat two years later, separately said he will propose two constitutional amendments: One to raise the number of required signatures and another to have the lieutenant governor finish the governor’s term if a recall succeeds.

Newsom on Tuesday became only the second governor in U.S. history to defeat a recall; the other was Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker. The win cements him as a prominent figure in national Democratic politics and ensures that the nation’s most populous state remains a laboratory for progressive policies.

With an estimated 70% of ballots counted, the “no” response to the question of whether to recall Newsom was ahead by a 28-point margin. That lead was built on votes cast by mail and in advance of Tuesday’s in-person balloting. While likely to shrink somewhat in the days ahead as votes cast at polling places are counted, Newsom’s lead cannot be overcome.

Republican talk radio host Larry Elder was the runaway leader among potential replacement candidates and if his lead held would have replaced Newsom had the recall succeeded, an outcome that would have brought a polar opposite political worldview to Sacramento.

The recall turned on Newsom’s approach to the pandemic, including mask and vaccine mandates, and Democrats cheered the outcome as evidence that voters approve of their strategy. The race also was a test of whether opposition to former President Donald Trump and his brand of conservative politics remains a motivating force for Democrats and independents, as the party looks ahead to midterm elections next year.

At the Capitol, Berman and Sen. Steven Glazer, who head the elections panels in their respective chambers, promised bipartisan hearings in the coming months, with the goal of proposing constitutional changes sometime after lawmakers reconvene in January. Changes to the recall law could go before voters as early as the November 2022 general election.

The Republican vice chairmen of the elections committees, Jim Nielsen in the Senate and Kelly Seyarto in the Assembly, did not immediately comment. But Orrin Heatlie, chief proponent of the recall effort that gathered more than 1.7 million signatures to put the question before voters, said recall supporters will fight changes “on every grounds that we can.”

“They’re working in opposition of the will of the people when they take action like that to limit our ability to self-govern,” he said.

The two elections committees will look at recall laws in other states and hear from experts on California’s process.

“I want to make sure we have is a system where a governor can’t be recalled and replaced by someone” who gets fewer votes because “that’s undemocratic, and there’s really no other way to say that,” said Berman, with Glazer in agreement.

Nineteen states have some sort of recall process, Glazer said, but only Colorado has a similar two-stage process. The California system asks voters first whether they want to remove the incumbent. Then, if a majority of voters approve removal, the candidate who gets the most votes on the second question becomes governor.

In the majority of other recall states, he said, the only question on the ballot is whether the official should be recalled. If a majority of voters say yes, the office is then declared vacant and filled by appointment or a separate special election.

Reform discussions have the backing of the Legislature’s two leaders, both of whom are Democrats, and their party holds two-thirds majorities in both chambers. But the final decision on reforms will come down to voters because the recall process is enshrined in the state Constitution.

Article II of the California Constitution, which governs recalls, was approved by California voters in 1911.

“This is a system that was set up about a century ago and to the extent to which it’s still valid in its current form, it needs to be looked at for sure,” Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said.

Rendon’s second-in-command, Assembly Speaker Pro Tempore Kevin Mullin, called the recall effort “a $276 million waste just to reaffirm 2018′s results with an election coming in 2022.”

The recall never would have come before voters if a judge had not given organizers four extra months to gather signatures due to the pandemic. That decision came the same day Newsom attended a maskless dinner at the lavish French Laundry restaurant with lobbyists and friends, stirring an outcry.

Supporters of the recall expressed frustration over monthslong business closures and restrictions that kept most children out of classrooms. Rising homicides, a homelessness crisis and an unemployment fraud scandal further angered Newsom’s critics.

But the broader public stayed on the governor’s side. Polling from the Public Policy Institute of California showed his approval rating remaining above 50% throughout the pandemic. With weeks to go, the institute’s poll showed 60% of Californians approved of Newsom’s handling of the pandemic.

Newsom will soon be campaigning again. He’s up for reelection next year.

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See AP’s recall coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/california-recall

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