California Lawmakers Plan Reform To State's Chaotic Recall System

The unsuccessful effort to oust Gov. Gavin Newsom from office has renewed concern about the way California handles recalls.

California’s controversial recall system, which residents saw play out Tuesday night to the tune of nearly $300 million in taxpayer dollars, is due for some major reforms, legislative leaders said Wednesday.

A day after the recall election confirmed in a landslide that Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) would stay in office, the two lawmakers in charge of election-related matters announced plans to hold recall reform hearings with the goal of introducing a proposal on the matter in the 2022 legislative session.

“Now that the recall is over, I believe it is time to re-evaluate and update California’s recall process,” state Sen. Steve Glazer (D), who chairs the Senate Committee on Elections and Constitutional Amendments, said in a statement. “The voters want to see a more democratic process put in place that keeps elected officials accountable, but prevents political gamesmanship of the rules.”

Frustration around the recall system has festered since April when the Republican-led effort to recall Newsom first qualified for the ballot, which asked voters two questions: Do they want to recall Newsom? And if he is recalled, who among the 40-plus competing candidates should replace him?

Had more than 50% of voters answered yes to the first question, then whoever had the most votes on the second question would become California’s new leader.

Unlike a regular gubernatorial election, the winner would not need to win at least half of the vote to become governor. In other words, a recall candidate could win the election with a small fraction of the vote even if the governor facing a recall had more support from voters.

“California law should not allow someone else to be recalled and replaced by a candidate who receives far fewer votes,” Assemblymember Marc Berman, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Elections, said Wednesday. “I look forward to hearing from a bipartisan group of experts about how California’s recall process should be reformed.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) speaks to union workers and volunteers on Election Day at the IBEW Local 6 union hall on Sept. 14, 2021, in San Francisco.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) speaks to union workers and volunteers on Election Day at the IBEW Local 6 union hall on Sept. 14, 2021, in San Francisco.
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

California has several models for a different recall system. In Wisconsin, voters are simply asked to pick someone from a list of candidates, which includes the current governor.

There’s also the matter of California’s relatively low hurdle for getting a recall on the ballot. Of the 19 states that allow the recall of elected officials, California has one of the lowest thresholds for signatures needed to prompt a recall: 12% of the number of voters in the last election for governor. Most other states require roughly double that percentage.

State Sen. Josh Newman (D), who was successfully recalled in 2018 then won back his seat in 2020, said Tuesday night that he plans to introduce legislation raising the signature requirement and letting the lieutenant governor finish the governor’s term in the event of a recall.

Another reform idea circulating is requiring some sort of malfeasance on the part of the official whom petitioners are seeking to recall. Rhode Island, for one, says someone may only face a recall if he or she “has been indicted or informed against for a felony, convicted of a misdemeanor, or against whom a finding of probable cause of violation of the code of ethics has been made by the ethics commission.”

Because California’s recall process is enshrined in the state constitution, any reforms that pass in the legislature will also need to be put to voters — and getting them on board may take a lot of convincing. On Monday, a poll from the Institute for Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, found that an astounding 75% of voters view the recall process “as a good thing.”

However, the poll showed majority support for some of the reforms being floated, including raising the signature threshold and establishing a cause requirement for recalls.