The Washington Post

A flawed waste of time

California’s recall elections subvert representa­tive democracy.


CALIFORNIA JUST wasted months of campaignin­g, $276 million in public money, untold amounts of private funds and the time of millions of voters to discover that there are far more Democrats than Republican­s in the state. Incumbent Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) won a resounding victory Tuesday in California’s absurd gubernator­ial recall vote, meaning he will serve out the final year of his first term and run for reelection next year, as scheduled.

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 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.

 ?? FRED GREAVES/REUTERS ?? California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in Sacramento on Sept. 14.
FRED GREAVES/REUTERS California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in Sacramento on Sept. 14.

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