Thad Kousser is a professor and the chairman of the political science department at the University of California at San Diego.
In the wake of the 2003 gubernatorial recall, which ousted Democrat Gray Davis and put Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in office, a majority of California voters agreed that the process of judging and replacing the governor needed repair.
According to a Public Policy Institute of California poll taken at the time, 58 percent of voters thought the recall process needed major or minor changes, vs. 35 percent who said it worked “okay the way it is.” In the recall’s immediate aftermath, state lawmakers introduced legislation and a constitutional amendment to reform the process. Then: Nothing happened.
The proposed 2003 reform would have given voters the chance to make multiple changes to the process and political players driving California’s recall. With that opportunity missed, now Californians will have to deal with the biggest flaw in the recall rulebook — the dual ballot. Voters are asked to make two choices: one deciding the fate of the governor, and the other, in the event that a majority approves of the incumbent’s removal, selecting a replacement. Given how many candidates are likely to meet the less than rigorous requirements to run — in the 2003 recall, 135 candidates qualified — only a plurality is needed to win.
The dual ballot brings two problems, both of them challenges to fundamental political fairness. In the looming recall, likely to be held in the fall, Newsom could be replaced by a candidate with far less support than the governor himself.
Let’s say Newsom loses the recall by a 55-to-45 percent margin, as Davis did in 2003. One of the leading candidates to replace Newsom, Republican John Cox, lost badly to him in 2018 with only 38 percent of the vote. But in 2021, if voter support splinters across many candidates, 38 percent could easily carry Cox to a plurality victory. The same support that sent him to a landslide loss would hand him a historic victory. (The scenario didn’t play out in 2003; more voters, 3.7 million, went for Schwarzenegger, than supported keeping Davis, at 3.5 million.)
There is a solution to this potential perversion of the popular will. California could hold a runoff election between the top two candidates running to replace the governor or use an instant-runoff ballot in which voters rank the replacement candidates. That would help ensure that a candidate who can earn the support of over 50 percent of voters wins, rather than a candidate, possibly on the extremes, who locks down the biggest plurality.
The other dual-ballot problem is that holding two votes in tandem fuses the politics involved, creating a strong incentive for political game-playing. Governors facing a recall want to keep every serious candidate in their party off the ballot of potential replacements, so that voters will face a hard choice: Keep the incumbent in office, or risk turning the governorship over to the opposing party. Davis nearly succeeded in clearing the replacement field this way, but his rivalry with Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante led that Democrat to enter the race, damaging the governor’s chances.
Newsom has moved aggressively in recent months to preempt any major contender in his party from joining the replacement race. It is the right political stratagem, but wrong for democracy, which thrives when the electorate has real choices.
The fix for this problem? California could run two separate recall races, as some nations do. The first would focus only on the incumbent, freeing strong contenders in the governor’s party to run later without seeming disloyal if a replacement were needed. Yes, the state would have to hold a second election, but that’s only if voters turned the governor out.
Another rule, further in the weeds but no less in need of reform, empowers a partisan elected official with a choice that can effectively determine the cast of characters running to replace the governor. The lieutenant governor gets to pick the timing of the recall, setting its date between 60 and 80 days after the recall petition is fully certified. Those running to replace the governor must file their candidacy — by collecting 7,000 signatures or paying $4,200 — at least 59 days before the election. That could leave all potential candidates with only one day to decide whether to enter the race.
It would make more sense to give potential candidates 30 days to audition before the voters and collect a significant number of signatures. But until the California legislature acts, the state’s recall rules and making sense will remain mutually exclusive.