One Change That Would End California's "Recall Circus" Election Problem

[ Posted Tuesday, September 14th, 2021 – 15:14 UTC ]

It is Recall Election Day out here in California today, so I thought I'd write today in support of a rather simple change that really needs to be made in California recall elections law. This one change could solve the nightmare scenario the nation's pundits were all a-twitter (and a-Twitter) over during the slow news days of August. Not only would this one fundamental change avoid having a candidate win the governor's seat with only a tiny fraction of the overall vote, but it would significantly lessen the appeal of recall elections in the first place, for the party who lost the last regular gubernatorial election. The change? Instead of simultaneously voting on: (1) whether to recall the sitting governor, and: (2) who should replace him (if a majority votes to recall); Californians would only be presented with the first question -- the recall question. If a majority did vote to oust the sitting governor, then the lieutenant governor would immediately be sworn in.

This makes all kinds of sense. What else is a lieutenant governor for, after all? To step into office should the governor not be able to carry out his or her duties. The office is equivalent to the vice president, in the national government (note: in some states the office of lieutenant governor doesn't even exist, but in California it does). He or she is, essentially, a spare part. "Plan B." Insurance against unforeseen events.

If the California governor quits or dies in office or is impeached and convicted by the state legislature, then he or she is replaced by the lieutenant governor. So why should this process be any different if the people, as a whole, decide to give him or her the boot?

It really shouldn't. A recall election is nothing short of a populist impeachment. Instead of the lower chamber of the state legislature bringing charges and the upper chamber adjudicating those charges, the people (a fraction of them, who have to sign their support) make the case for removal, and then the question is put to the entire electorate to judge. But if the decision is made to remove the sitting governor, then why not have the lieutenant governor step in?

Theoretically, this isn't even a partisan suggestion. As in many states, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor of California run completely independently. There is no "slate" or "ticket." There's no "Biden/Harris" versus "Trump/Pence," instead there is Biden-v-Trump and Harris-v-Pence -- two completely separate races. This means that the two offices could conceivably be held by politicians from different parties. This has happened repeatedly throughout California history, as recently as a decade ago. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pete Wilson, and George Deukmejian are all Republicans, but they all had Democratic lieutenant governors. So it is not a foregone conclusion that the two offices will be held by the same party.

The last two Democratic governors, Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, have indeed had fellow Democrats serving under them. And it has been years since any Republican won a statewide office here, so the likelihood (for the near future, at least) is that both would, in fact, be Democrats. But this brings up another very large point: how many people truly think that the Republican Party would have put this much time, energy, and money into forcing a recall election (with only a little over one year to go until we all get to vote in a regular gubernatorial election anyway) if they knew that the success of such a recall would merely leave them with another Democrat in the governor's office? Still think they'd enthusiastically pump millions and millions of dollars into the effort? I don't.

This is a secondary effect of changing the election laws, but it could be a profound one. Every single California governor -- for decades -- has faced recall election drives. Virtually all of them failed to garner enough signatures to force a special election. Only two of these efforts succeeded -- the Gray Davis recall in 2003 and today's election. It's a pretty easy guess that the frequency of these attempts would diminish if the "sweepstakes circus" second ballot question was no longer included.

Of course, it could give rise to more recall attempts, in the special circumstance of a party split between the governor and lieutenant governor. If recalling a governor meant a party switch, then there would indeed be more incentive for the underdog party to attempt a recall. But this situation is fairly rare, so overall it would still likely lessen the sheer amount of recall attempts, over time.

There are reportedly groups ready to attempt a lawsuit if Newsom is successfully recalled and replaced with a candidate that may only get 25-30 percent of the overall vote (if he's having a really good day). If Newsom got, for instance, 48 percent of the voters to vote "No" on the recall, then why should 25 percent of the voters overrule 48 percent of them? That's pretty undemocratic, which is the legal case they are primed to make. Newsom himself isn't involved in this strategy, it's worth pointing out, but the groups do have a point.

There are 46 candidates on the ballot today. That's nothing. Its almost exactly one-third of how many were presented to voters in the 2003 recall, when a whopping 135 candidates were on the (multi-page) ballot. The requirements for filing are pretty low, as you can see. And with so many candidates to choose from, a candidate winning only 15 percent (or even 10 percent) could "win" if all the other candidates were in the single digits -- which, with that many candidates, is a real possibility.

Making one basic reform to the recall election law would forever avoid this circus. And there's a pretty simple (and nonpartisan) argument to make for instituting this reform. If the governor dies, the lieutenant governor takes over. If the governor quits, the lieutenant governor takes over. If the governor is impeached and removed by the legislature, the lieutenant governor takes over. California is even one of those states with a law which dictates that if the governor is not actually on California soil, then the lieutenant governor is temporarily in power while the governor is absent from the state.

So why should a recall election be any different? Keep all the rest of the recall elections law intact. Recall elections would be forced and would happen exactly the way they do now, except that the people would not get the choice of electing a replacement governor. California already has a replacement governor, after all. Who is the person who should step into the job if the people decide the governor deserves to be thrown out of office.


[Personal note for those who are curious: The polls haven't closed yet as I write this, but I feel pretty confident I'm not influencing anyone's vote by admitting that I voted "No" in both of the modern California recall elections. Back in 2003, I voted for Larry Flynt for governor (since he was such a fighter for the First Amendment). Hey, don't laugh -- out of 135 candidates, Flynt came in seventh. This time around, I voted for Green candidate Dan Kapelovitz, solely on the strength of his candidate statement (each candidate is allowed a short statement to the voters in the official voter's guide), which read, in its entirety: "Can you dig it?" My reasoning? If we're going to have a circus... might as well check out the sideshows....]

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


31 Comments on “One Change That Would End California's "Recall Circus" Election Problem”

  1. [1] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Yes, and the California Republic is spending a cool $276 million on this farce.

    For the record I worked the 2003 recall election at a Senior citizens apartment complex. I watched a stream of old folk turning in
    Recall -- YES
    Who to replace with --

    I voted for Mary Carey, an adult film actress. Alas, this time around California's onerous tax returns submission requirements washed her out of this race. Pity that. This year she pledged to "come out on top."

    You just can't make this stuff up. It may take decades for the movie industry to figure out how to portray these times. Like the Vietnam War.

  2. [2] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    Yeah, and I recall giving Mr. Larry "First Amendment" Flynt a close look.

    But the whole thing was just such a joke that I couldn't take any of it (including my own vote) seriously.

  3. [3] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    And yup, this guy's candidate statement is short and sweet, folks.

  4. [4] 
    SF Bear wrote:

    Great idea Chris but wouldn't it require amending our constitution? Not an easy thing to do. But perhaps this circus is enough to make it happen. Perhaps we could requite that campaign Bear to help change the law in the Bear Flag Republic of California.

  5. [5] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    While California government at it's core is more functional than many places I have a feeling the circus is here to stay, especially when one considers the "strum und drang" the GOP is already making about "fraud".

    I can already hear the cries of "power grab", cheating, and illegal ... They really like that last one.

    On the surface it looks doable given that we would simply have to decouple/change the election laws pertaining to how the recall election is conducted. Interestingly the constitution does not require that the yes or no recall question AND the replacement question must appear together, that is strictly a function of the election code.

    The constitution also does not state that the recalled official must be filled by the result of the replacement question. Even then the Election code stipulates that If no replacement candidate is nominated or qualifies for the position, the office will be vacant and filled according to the relevant laws governing vacancies. So the idea is somewhat already there.

    We would however have to amend section 16 and 17 of the constitution to account for the legislature no longer being required to provide for the Nomination of candidates and section 16 which would have to change who performs the recall duties of the Governors office when they are recalled (currently the Lt. Gov). This is where I see the "strum und drang" happening.

    Since we are tinkering I also would not mind seeing section 15 reduced to 30 days minimum and not more than 60 days for the election occur. It would weed out the unprepared.

  6. [6] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    goode trickle, thanks for digging that up for us. Are you a fellow Left Coaster,

  7. [7] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


  8. [8] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    MTC- 6

    Technically yes, but since being vax'd and the shift in how we are dealing with Covid sending me back to what I normally do, I tend to be more of a global resident.

    Which, with what you have to do to get into places and the social restrictions is not as much fun as it used to be.

    I am just active right now because I am on the western hemisphere and I have irons in the fire on the east coast and the west coast... so whilst I wait for the time zones to catch up to me why not recreate...

  9. [9] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    very nice, gt ... I'm a global citizen, too!

  10. [10] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    well, that's that. recall failed, right-wing conspiracy theories engaged.

  11. [11] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Rinse and repeat.

  12. [12] 
    nypoet22 wrote:

    while we're talking about crazy ideas, how about bezos, gates, soros and all the other lefty billionaires start factory towns in wyoming, north and south dakota, and hire 200,000 democrats each to move there. they can figure out for themselves what products or services would lose them the least money, but of course the main point would be to turn each of the red states blue.

    instead of griping about how unfair the electoral college is by giving outsized influence to smaller states, change the demographics of those states by internal migration.


  13. [13] 
    John M wrote:

    Elizabeth Miller wrote:
    John M,

    "So, you're saying that Democrats can't even come up with simplistic messages?" :)

    No they can't. That's my point. Democrats want to EXPLAIN things in a very cerebral way. That's what gets them the "elitist" label that turns so many people off. People's eyes glaze over with FACTS.

    People would rather agree with a lie that supports the opinions they already hold rather than a reality that contradicts them. Case in point, our former Michale.

    Republicans play to this emotion, which is what makes them so effective. Gay marriage or marriage equality won when it connected to people on an emotional level. Democrats need to do the same.

  14. [14] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    No, he's not prohibited from running in his recall election. I voted NO on recall and wrote in Gavin Newsom's name in part two.

  15. [15] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Wouldn't that have spoiled your ballot?

  16. [16] 
    goode trickle wrote:

    Caddy- 15

    Under election law section 11381 (c) it states No person whose recall is being sought may be a candidate to succeed himself or herself at a recall election nor to succeed any other member of the same governing board whose recall is being sought at the same election.

    EM-16 Technically yes he did spoil his ballot according to election law section 15341 that states Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no name written
    upon a ballot in any election shall be counted for an office or
    nomination unless the candidate whose name has been written on the
    ballot has complied with Part 3 (commencing with Section 8600) of
    Division 8.

    Interestingly it will be tough to tease out how many ballots were not counted because people wrote in non-registered people. Because California does not, like most other places(again 34 states), track ballots rendered ineligible to be counted. A non-counted ballot becomes part of the registered voter to votes cast differential.

    While California does track and report on rejected ballots, those are completely different as they are ballots that would have been counted but were rejected due to some issue with the ballot submission.

    The irksome thing is that if your ballot is rendered invalid the ballot tracking site still reports it as counted....

  17. [17] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    I called my local Registrar of Voters and they said what I did was fine.

    Furthermore, I went on the Interwebs and verified that my vote was received and counted. So...

    Neener Neener Neener!

  18. [18] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    It was easy peasy. After all, this is a Democratic ruled People's Republic of California Bwahahahaha!

  19. [19] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    I mean, it's a good thing Larry Elder didn't become California's Governor. He's such a sharp Republican he had already sussed out the the recall election was stolen from him even before the election. He could have done a lot of damage, this guy.

    Can't wait for the audits, right Chris?

  20. [20] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I'm glad, Caddy.

    Do you know why comments are closed for Chris's latest column?

  21. [21] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    goode trickle[17],

    Very interesting, indeed!

    So, Caddy's vote may not have actually been counted even if he sees on the site that it was???

  22. [22] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Has anyone here watched the senate hearing today on the sexual abuse perpetrated by Larry Nassar and enabled by the FBI and US gymnastics and olympic and paraolympic committees?

    I used to have some respect for FBI Director Wray but his performance today was wholly disappointing. I can only try to imagine how the courageous gymnasts who testified today feel about his weak testimony. In fact, coming as his testimony did just after these courageous athletes recounted their horrific abuse at the hands of Larry Nassar, Wray looked like a very small man in every sense of the word next to these young women.

    Wray believes that all he can do is to learn from this horrific abuse of power by the FBI and its agents and hope that it is never allowed to happen again.


    That's all he can do because the agents no longer work for the FBI.

    I guess Wray just doesn't understand that what FBI agents did was to break the bloody law or that they should be prosecuted for doing so.

    Good luck to the FBI and the public trust that they need to do their job of protecting the American people everyday.

  23. [23] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:

    No idea, Elizabeth. I sent him an email.

  24. [24] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I've sent him some emails a while ago, too - not about this - and they have gone unanswered.

  25. [25] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Glenn Kirshner is piling on the FBI in this short video.

    P.S. He actually uses a swear word for the first time since somebody here turned me on to him.

  26. [26] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Does Glenn Kirshner have anything to say about the FBI Director's testimony today with regard to Wrays assertion that there is nothing he can do about FBI agents who broke the low other than to fire them or let them retire and to learn from mistakes made?

  27. [27] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Perhaps, when we hear from the Justice department about why they chose not to prosecute FBI agents for the crimes they committed in the Larry Nassar case, we will understand more.

  28. [28] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I sure do hope that comments won't be 'OFF' forever.

    I'm still gonna run with the CW Sunday Night Music Festival and Dance Party ...

    And, I, for one, will be heavily contributing to the fundraising drive come this Thanksgiving for!

  29. [29] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


  30. [30] 
    nypoet22 wrote:


  31. [31] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


Comments for this article are closed.