14 September 2021


Cogito Ergo Non Serviam

California's Recall Law is Silly


The State of California is holding a recall vote today asking the electorate if Gavin Newsom should continue in office, and if not, which person should replace him. The idea of recall is silly in and of itself. That nonsense, however, is made worse by the way in which the California process works. The Lieutenant Governor who would take over in the event of the governor's death, resignation or impeachment is ignored. Instead, whoever can get on the ballot and secure a mere plurality gets to serve out the term. Once this referendum is over, the state legislature needs to abolish the whole thing.

The idea of a recall is, at first blush, a good idea for protecting a democracy. A politician gets elected, proves himself inept or crooked, and the people rise up and oust him with the ballot. However, that lets the voters off the hook. A recall is just another election, and it has the effect of shortening one politician's term and giving the balance to another. This can encourage reckless behavior on the part of the voters. They don't have to live with the consequences of their actions for the entire term of office. And they should.

The whole point of democracy is to bestow legitimacy on the winner of an election. If good government happens to result, that is a happy outcome, but it is not the purpose of the exercise. Voting for crackpots to "send a message" is perfectly acceptable, too. Yet if that crackpot manages a plurality, then the message needs to be that the people made their bed and they ought to lie in it. Being governed by an idiot is the right punishment for voting that way.

It is true that some terms of office are much too long. The French president used to serve 7 years, and the French realized that was the case. Rather than arrange recalls, they changed the length of the term to 5. And the President of France may succeed himself once.

However, if one is going to allow this damned silly thing, doing it in this damned silly way makes no sense at all. The current ballot paper has two questions. Should Mr. Newsom be recalled? In order to keep his job, he needs 50%+1. The second question is who should be governor if Mr. Newsom is ousted? To win here, one needs a simple plurality. There are 46 names on the ballot to answer that second question. It is arithmetically possible to win this kind of race with a mere 5% (or less even) of the vote. How is it democratic when the sitting governor loses his job despite winning 49% of the vote only to be replaced by someone who got a fraction of that?

Compounding the Golden State's folly is the low threshold for the petition to recall. Organizers need signatures on petitions amounting to 12% of the last total vote for governor. In this case 1,495,709 signatures were needed; that is 12% of the total votes cast in 2018 when Mr. Newsom won. While it is true that a million and a half signatures don't materialize in an afternoon, it is equally true that millions of dollars have gone into the recall campaign. One can hire a lot of signature gatherers for $15 an hour if one has millions to spend.

What made this particular campaign awkward was the pandemic. A judge basically gave the pro-recall campaign an extra 4 months to get signatures. This is not an unreasonable accommodation, but it does muddy up the waters. Would they have been able to get the signatures in time had there not been a pandemic?

One hopes that Mr. Newsom carries the day, and that tomorrow, he leads a reform of the law. Or better an abolition of it.

© Copyright 2021 by The Kensington Review, Jeff Myhre, PhD, Editor. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written consent. Produced using Ubuntu Linux.

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