Is the California Recall a Partisan Ploy?

Created: 07 September, 2021
Updated: 14 August, 2022
4 min read

It's easy to empathize with Republicans living in California. For a long time, the state has been dominated by the Democratic Party, and Democrats are quite willing to exercise their influence in self-serving ways. No doubt California Republicans feel as though they cannot get a fair shake or even be heard. Unfortunately, this frustration seems to have led some to desperation when it comes to the upcoming recall election for Governor Gavin Newsom.

Most of us were taught that the "founding fathers" of the United States were concerned about a tyranny of the majority and included provisions in the Constitution to preserve the rights of minority groups (even if that concern didn't extend to anyone who wasn't a white male Christian landowner). Unfortunately, those mechanisms have, over the course of our history, been subject to the same political pressures that have affected all our laws.

Since the late 19th century, the American political landscape has been dominated by only two political parties, and both of those parties have become increasingly focused not on presenting their particular view for the future direction of the nation, but on preserving and consolidating power wherever they can, and usurping power through undemocratic means when in the minority. Institutions such as bicameral legislatures and the electoral college may have been created in good faith at the time, but all of these have degenerated into vehicles for imposing minority will on the majority. The same is true of the recall.

The California recall law went into effect in 1911, and since then it has been just as effective as, say, the dentistry available in those days. There have been 179 attempts to unseat state officials, 11 of which qualified for the ballot and six of which were successful. California is one of 19 states with similar laws, and our law does not require any reason for removal; only that enough ballot signatures be collected. That is 12% of the voters in the previous election. In the last election, about 12.5 million (56%) of California's 22 million registered voters participated. So the recall proponents needed to get signatures from a little less than 7% of California's adult citizens to get on the ballot.

Preposterously, our plurality voting system means that an official with 49% support can be replaced by someone with a tiny fraction of the vote.

Our federal laws require that officials be removed for cause by impeachment. But no such due process is in play in California. While it's easy to understand the impulse to create mechanisms to remove manifestly malignant officeholders, it's hard to understand how California ended up with the method for doing so that we see today. The specifics of the California recall involve a two-step process: first, voters must decide whether or not to recall the official. If that measure passes, voters must select a replacement. 

Preposterously, our plurality voting system means that an official with 49% support can be replaced by someone with a tiny fraction of the vote. Relying on voter sentiment instead of due process can put our democratic processes at risk. The successful recall of Governor Gray Davis in 2003 was later exposed as a fraud perpetrated by the executives of Enron Corporation. The specific numbers of that election put Arnold Schwarzenegger in office with 48.6% of the vote to Davis' 44.6%, but the vote was clearly tainted by Enron's manipulation of the California power grid, which turned public sentiment against Davis. Regardless of how one may feel about Davis vs. Schwarzenegger, elections driven by fraud are hardly supportive of a just society.

In the upcoming recall, there are so many candidates on the ballot that it is possible for one to become the new governor with even less than 20% of the vote. Disappointingly, there are people working diligently to elect a Republican supported by a small minority of voters to replace a Democrat with the support of 50% of the electorate. How could any reasonable person characterize such efforts as anything but blatantly partisan?

The [recall] effort was initiated by a few disgruntled activists and only gained traction after the pandemic threw our society into chaos.

The current governor, like any official, has made mistakes large and small. But that's not what the recall is about. The recall petition was written before the beginning of the pandemic. Take all the time you need with that, as you consider the justifications for recall offered by Governor Newsom's opponents. The effort was initiated by a few disgruntled activists and only gained traction after the pandemic threw our society into chaos.

Finally, let's consider what the potential outcome of this recall could be. The Republican front-runner is a radio talk show host, while the Democrat is a Youtube personality. Is either of these really qualified to lead the world's fifth-largest economy? If either of them are "elected" in the recall, it will be with a small minority of the vote. So let's not kid ourselves. The recall effort is hardly an expression of good faith concern over the management of our state. To the contrary, it is partisan trickery and an affront to American values.

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