Los Angeles Times

A yes for reining in the recall law

It’s too easy to force a costly special election, writes Mark Z. Barabak.


Well, that was a complete and utter waste.

Now that the recall election is over and voters have soundly rejected the effort to give Gov. Gavin Newsom the boot, the exercise should be recognized for what it was: an act of partisan petulance that took California taxpayers for a ride.

Or, put another way, a hugely expensive effort by outnumbere­d Republican­s and their allies to commandeer an office they couldn’t win under normal circumstan­ces.

That’s not a defense of Newsom, who is hardly beyond reproach. You may object to his herky-jerky handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, lay blame for the state’s fraud-riddled unemployme­nt system at his feet, deplore his moratorium on the death penalty, or hate his gelled hair and perfect teeth.

Not to worry. In less than nine months, California voters will have a chance — once again — to render their verdict on the Democratic incumbent and his policies, along with his toothpaste smile. There is an election in June 2022, right on schedule, when Newsom is expected to seek a second term.

After Tuesday’s blowout, he’s a prohibitiv­e favorite to win both the top-two primary and the November runoff.

Critics of the governor insisted his malpractic­e turned the state into such a cesspit that only his immediate removal would do, hence the need to shortcircu­it the regular election process. Each passing day, they suggested, only compounded the disaster.

And yet some of those same Newsom critics objected when the governor’s Democratic allies — seeking

an advantage — cleared the way for the election to take place Sept. 14, rather than waiting several more weeks to vote. So much for urgency. The cost of the special election was in the neighborho­od of $276 million.

Here are several ways the money could have been better spent:

■ Paying the state’s share to educate 28,000 kindergart­en through 12thgrade students. Or ...

■ Funding 58,000 middleclas­s scholarshi­ps for UC and Cal State students, as well as educating nearly 12,000 K-12 students. Or ...

■ Providing just under half of the money budgeted this year to fight California’s abundant wildfires.

So much for the wise use of taxpayer dollars.

Every California governor since 1960 has faced multiple recall attempts; the threat of early eviction comes with the office, along with a security detail and the chance to show up at natural disasters in spiffy outerwear. In the case of Newsom — who walloped one of his recall opponents, Republican John Cox, in a November 2018 landslide — talk of a recall began even before he was sworn into office.

So much for waiting and seeing.

Some argue that gubernator­ial recall elections are a rarity, given the fact there have been just four in all of U.S. history. But two of those have occurred in California, less than two decades apart.

Clearly, something has changed as the state’s 1911 recall provision is harnessed to 21st century technology.

Richly funded petition drives and the growth of the political-industrial outrage complex, stoked by social media and the pyromaniac­s flinging matches on talk radio, have greatly enhanced the odds that partisan discontent­s — I don’t like the governor’s personalit­y, I don’t like his policies, I don’t like the fact he belongs to a different party — will lead to elections like the one Tuesday.

Add to that an increasing refusal to accept election outcomes — a recklessne­ss fed by the cavalier former President Trump and others parroting his phony claims of voter fraud — and it’s easy to see how recalls could go from being a rarity to a regular feature of California politics.

That’s why it’s time for a reset.

There are 19 states that allow their governor to be recalled. California is by far the most permissive.

It takes signatures reflecting just 12% of the ballots cast in the prior gubernator­ial contest to force an election. In Newsom’s case, that meant proponents needed to collect just under 1.5 million signatures in a state with more than 22 million voters and nearly 40 million residents. That may sound like a lot. But it’s not in this age of pugilistic partisansh­ip and unceasing political warfare.

The threshold needs to be higher, and the reason for a recall needs to be more serious, such as proof of corruption or malfeasanc­e, or conviction for a serious crime.

Once a recall makes the ballot, the rules are even more perverse and less democratic.

A targeted governor can receive 49.9% of the vote in favor of serving out his term, and be replaced by a candidate receiving just a small fraction of that support. As it stands, the top vote-getter automatica­lly becomes governor, which in a multicandi­date field could mean taking office with 20% support or even much less.

A better system would be a runoff between the two top finishers; that way at least one of them would have the backing of a majority of California voters.

The petition that led to Tuesday’s election presented a litany of complaints: about immigratio­n, capital punishment, homelessne­ss, taxes, water use. There was conspicuou­sly no mention of COVID-19, which helped drive the recall effort and, in the end, gave Newsom a powerful weapon to fight back. (Does California, he asked, want to become a pandemic death trap like Florida and Texas?)

The hodgepodge of grievances brings to mind a scene from the 1953 movie “The Wild One,” about a gang of motorcycle toughs who invade a small California town. “What are you rebelling against?” the leader, played by Marlon Brando, is asked. “Whaddaya got?” he famously replies.

That’s just the sort of heedless, reflexive hostility that helped bring about Tuesday’s election: It was anger in search of an outlet, frustratio­n seeking release, the losing side pursuing vengeance after years of political futility.

The state shouldn’t ever again have to squander money on an extraneous election like the one California just experience­d. A quarter of a billion dollars is too much to spend on another backdoor attempt to seize the governor’s office.

 ?? IRFAN KHAN Los Angeles Times ?? ELLYSE CAMPOSANO helps sort recall ballots for verificati­on at the L.A. County registrar’s Pomona office.
IRFAN KHAN Los Angeles Times ELLYSE CAMPOSANO helps sort recall ballots for verificati­on at the L.A. County registrar’s Pomona office.
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