The subject line of a recent fund-raising email from Gavin Newsom, the politically embattled governor of California, reads like the wheedling apologia of a busted boyfriend: “Can I please have a chance to explain?”
What Mr. Newsom wants to explain is why he desperately needs donations to fight the “partisan, Republican-led recall” in which he is currently embroiled — and that polling suggests he could very well lose.
California has way more registered Democrats than Republicans, and the latter are indeed driving this recall effort. But Republicans are all revved up about the fight, making the to-recall-or-not-to-recall split among likely voters uncomfortably close. Depending on who bothers to participate in the Sept. 14 election, Mr. Newsom could soon find himself out of a job. If that happens, his likely successor looks to be a right-wing, outrage-peddling misogynistic radio host who opposes abortion rights, mask mandates and any type of minimum wage.
So much for America’s political dynamics getting less weird after Donald Trump.
How did Mr. Newsom, the Democratic governor of deep-blue California, find himself in this pickle? Like any leader, he has had his share of stumbles. He has also been hammered by forces largely beyond his control — a deadly pandemic, raging wildfires, economic turmoil and an energized, MAGA-fied Republican Party seeking payback for Mr. Trump’s electoral thumping last year, to name just a few.
All elected officials, of course, must contend with unhappy constituents and partisan passions. But California leaders face an additional challenge: an out-of-touch recall system adopted more than a century ago that invites frequent, even frivolous, attempts to oust officials for any perceived offense. Every California governor since 1960 has endured at least one recall attempt. In his first term, Mr. Newsom has faced five. The only Republican to capture the state’s governorship in the past two decades was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won as part of the 2003 recall of the Democrat Gray Davis.
Will the Democrats face a midterm wipeout?
Why fret now about a process that has been around so long and, while promiscuously used, rarely succeeds? For starters, it is undemocratic — some say even unconstitutional. It is also ripe for abuse by a Republican Party that has grown increasingly anti-majoritarian and antidemocratic. Nationwide, the G.O.P. has basically given up trying to build winning electoral majorities and instead focused on tilting the playing field in its favor. Refusing to consider a Democratic president’s Supreme Court nominee? Check. Trying to meddle with the census? Check. Passing restrictive voting laws? Check. Trying to overturn a free and fair presidential election? Check. And so on. There is no reason for California to allow its flawed recall system to facilitate this ignoble mission.
No question, Mr. Newsom has made mistakes — most memorably, last year’s French Laundry fiasco. It would have been bad enough for him to be caught gallivanting at a posh restaurant during a lethal, economically crushing pandemic. But to get spotted doing so without a mask, even as he was lecturing others to mask up and stay home? Pure idiocy. Small wonder that his rules-for-thee-but-not-for-me display turbocharged a previously plodding recall effort originally organized by conservatives miffed about his handling of issues like immigration.
Hypocritical, entitled cluelessness notwithstanding, Mr. Newsom, like many governors, is an obvious focus for all the rage and frustration percolating as the pandemic drags on. This might not be quite so problematic if everything else in the state were hunky-dory. But it’s wildfire season again, meaning that even areas not threatened with flaming destruction are plagued by smoke-clogged air and creepy-colored skies. Then there are the crises of homelessness and a rise in homicides. It’s enough to make anyone crabby. And crabby voters, even many Democrats, might not feel moved to head to the polls or even mail in their ballots to save him.
Mr. Newsom’s conservative critics, by contrast, are highly motivated to kick him to the curb. Aware of this enthusiasm gap, the governor has been begging Democrats to “wake up” and see this race as a referendum not on his leadership so much as on Trumpism. As Mr. Newsom frames it, his ouster would be a blow to the national Democratic Party and the entire cause of liberal democracy.
Whatever the governor’s fate, his battle has spotlighted the peculiarities in a recall system that many feel is overdue for reform. For starters, the state has an unusually low signature hurdle for recall petitions: enough registered voters to equal 12 percent of the turnout in the previous election for governor — in this case, close to 1.5 million. Most recall states have higher thresholds: 15, 25, 30, even 40 percent. As The Los Angeles Times noted in a recent pro-reform editorial, 12 percent “might have been a high bar in 1911, when the population was scattered across the 770-mile length of the state, but is it too low in 2021, when petitions for ballot measures are gathered en masse by paid staff in parking lots?”
The voting process itself is also troubling. The question of whether to recall an incumbent and the question of who should replace him or her appear on the same ballot. The incumbent must clear 50 percent to remain in office. Failing that, whichever replacement candidate pulls the most votes wins, no matter how tiny the plurality. For this recall, there will be 46 aspiring replacements on the ballot. If Mr. Newsom pulls, say, 49.5 percent of the vote, then whichever challenger does slightly better than the rest will become the leader of the most populous state in the nation and the fifth-largest economy in the world.
“In other California elections,” The Los Angeles Times pointed out, “a candidate cannot win without the support of a majority of voters. If a candidate doesn’t win outright, the top two vote-getters compete in a runoff.” This helps protect the system from manipulation by daffy or dangerous fringe groups and candidates with narrow but intense appeal. Why should recalls be any different?
Many California voters seem to agree. While the vast majority of likely voters support having a recall process (86 percent), two-thirds believe it should be reformed, according to a July survey by the Public Policy Institute of California. Among the more popular potential changes are raising the signature requirement to 25 percent (55 percent support), requiring a runoff if no replacement candidate receives a majority (68 percent) and establishing standards that limit the reasons for which an incumbent may be recalled to illegal or unethical behavior (60 percent).
These are hardly the only issues to consider, prompting some political observers to call for the creation of a bipartisan commission to explore possible reforms.
Mr. Newsom is correct that this fight is about more than his political future. It should also serve as a wake-up call for Californians to improve an outdated system that is undemocratic and that gives too much sway to the swampy fringes of America’s political ecosystem.