How California’s Recall Laws Could Change

The looming recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom has revealed something of a paradox among Californians: We hold dear our ability to recall elected leaders from office but believe the process by which we do so to be deeply flawed.

In recent weeks, there have been a growing number of calls to reform the state’s recall laws, as well as a (now dismissed) lawsuit that claimed the upcoming election was unconstitutional. As of July, two-thirds of Californians thought the process was ripe for change, according to a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Recalls in California are, frankly, confusing. In this election, some voters are unsure if they can vote on both questions on the ballot. Many are mystified as to how someone who wins as few as 10 percent of the votes could walk away the leader of 40 million people.

“It’s not a healthy structure,” Raphael Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles, told me. “I’m hoping after this one is over that we’re all going to sit down and say, ‘There’s got to be some better rules.’”

But, as with so many things, it is easier said than done.

The core components of California’s recall process are laid out in the State Constitution, where our right to a recall was enshrined in 1911.

And amending the Constitution is a difficult, two-step process:

First, the State Legislature would have to pass the proposed amendment with two-thirds support in each house. (Alternatively, voters could collect close to a million signatures in support — though experts say this route is less likely.)

Then, the amendment would appear on a statewide ballot, where it would require a simple majority to become law.

“The big items that have people in a twist — those things are all in the Constitution,” Matt Coles, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings, told me.

There are some less fundamental changes that could be approved by the Legislature without needing voter approval, such as a ban on paid signature gathering. But the most common ideas I’ve heard would require constitutional amendments.

I’ve laid some of them out below:

To get a recall on the ballot, the California Constitution requires that supporters collect signatures equal to 12 percent of the total votes cast in the previous election for governor.

That is among the lowest thresholds in the nation and part of why California is the unofficial recall capital of America, experts say.

“In 2020 alone, at least 14 governors nationwide faced recall efforts, but only California’s attempt proceeded to a ballot,” The Times’s editorial board wrote on Thursday, saying that was “due in part to those other states’ higher thresholds.”

In the poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, more than half of Californians supported raising the threshold to 25 percent, a common level set by other states.

State Senator Josh Newman, a Democrat of Fullerton who was recalled in 2018, told me he planned to introduce legislation next year that would raise the bar to 20 percent.

Currently, an elected official in California may be recalled for any reason, a provision explicitly stated in the Constitution.

But 60 percent of Californians support rules that allow recalls only for illegal or unethical activity, according to the recent poll.

In some states, such as Oregon and Michigan, a governor who is recalled by voters is automatically replaced by the lieutenant governor.

But in California, as well as most of the 19 states that allow recalls of state officials, the choice is left in the hands of the voters.

Newman told me he planned to propose a constitutional amendment early next year to change that, which would eliminate the replacement question on the ballot.

“That’s what creates this incentive to stage a recall election,” he said. “Somebody could squeak through with a very small plurality.”

State Senator Ben Allen, a Santa Monica Democrat, has proposed a different fix. He has introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow a politician facing a recall to also run as a replacement candidate.

Others have suggested holding the replacement election on a separate day from the recall election. Having a runoff between the top two replacement candidates has also been floated.

All these changes, again, would require rewriting the state’s Constitution.

For more:


Here’s the latest on the recall election, scheduled for Sept. 14:

President Biden will travel to California on Monday to campaign for Newsom, adding yet another high-profile Democrat to the effort to beat back the recall.

As of Wednesday, Sierra County, which tends to favor Republicans, had the highest voter turnout based on the ballots already mailed in, according to SFGate. The county with the lowest turnout was Imperial County, a typically Democratic region with a majority Latino population.

As my colleagues have reported, Newsom has struggled to motivate Latinos to support him in the recall.

And finally, The Times has answers to your frequently asked recall questions. Here’s a useful one:

How do I track my ballot?

You can track when your vote-by-mail ballot is received and counted at california.ballottrax.net/voter.

Tell us what else you want to know about the recall. Email your questions to CAtoday@nytimes.com.


Today’s travel tip comes from Jeff DeCurtins, a reader who lives in Menlo Park:

If you wait for a clear-air day, a great place to see all of Los Angeles at once is from the Mount Wilson Observatory parking lot. There are also a small astronomy museum and guided tours of the historical telescopes. Edwin Hubble used the 100-inch telescope in the 1920s to discover that our universe is much larger than we had thought and is expanding.

Tell us about the best spots to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.


This week I’ve been watching “The Wilds,” a TV show streaming on Amazon Prime that’s part “Lost,” part “Lord of the Flies” and part “The Breakfast Club.” I’m hooked.


Newyork time

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