This episode offers few useful lessons. Democrats like mask mandates and other pandemic measures, and they dislike Trump-aligned conservatives such as talk show host Larry Elder, who became the face of the recall movement and did nothing to reach outside the hardcore GOP base. Mr. Newsom could run on coronavirus concerns, point to Mr. Elder and score a blowout victory.
More than anything else, the recall vote amounted to an indictment of the recall system itself. Unlike other states with processes less prone to abuse, California requires the signatures of just 12 percent of voters to proceed with a recall election, so a fringe minority can tie up state government for months, forcing the state into a tiresome, all-consuming recall process. That is essentially what happened in California, where Republicans resented Mr. Newsom’s popular coronavirus policies and seethed at what some saw as his slick style.
On a recall ballot, voters are asked to vote up or down on whether to terminate the sitting governor’s term and, in a second question, whom they would want to install instead. There is no limit on the number of candidates. Dozens appeared on the recall ballot, including Mr. Elder, reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner, a young man named John Drake who marketed himself as “submissive and breedable,” and Angelyne, a Los Angeles personality known best for her sultry 1980s-era billboards. This system could easily result in a splintered vote that empowers a candidate with only a fraction of public support.
California’s recall process is flawed not just in execution but in concept, too. The point of representative democracy is to give leaders chosen by the people time and space to exercise their best judgment. They must explain their successes — or failures — to the voters at regular intervals. But it is not in the public interest for the governor to worry in the middle of a major crisis — a global pandemic, say — that needed emergency measures might provoke a quick recall vote.
There is a place for direct popular votes on a narrow, distinct class of issues. Plebiscites can be useful to bypass politicians who have deep conflicts of interest in preventing reform — for example, to impose nonpartisan redistricting commissions in place of politicians drawing their own legislative district lines.
But the U.S. political system balances the need for popular accountability with the need for informed leaders who have the knowledge and expertise to execute detailed public policy over the course of years. The California recall system throws the balance out of whack.