The CA Recall
The system is not defensible.
Mail-in voting in the California recall election commenced on August 14th and will continue until in-person voting on election day, September the 14th. Voters will be given one question, i.e., whether or not to recall Governor Gavin Newsom and they will also be asked to vote for a replacement in the event that Newsom is recalled. It will take 50%+1 voting YES to remove Newsome. If that comes to pass, a plurality of the vote spread out over 46 candidates will choose the next governor of the state.
The ballot looks like this:
On the one hand, the overwhelming Democratic lean of the state’s electorate should be more than sufficient to save Newsom’s job. But, polling has not been as favorable as one might have expected and the real issue is turnout.
Prior to voting starting, the polling was quite tight, but a recent shift has been in Newsom’s favor (and the fact that all citizens have the opportunity to vote by mail should redound to his favor). Here’s the polling average via FiveThirtyEight:
As I noted back in April, this process underscores the weakness of American political parties, especially in this context (and, really, in California in general with its Top Two system). There is a reason that the two candidates who have garnered the most attention have been Caitlyn Jenner and Larry Elder: they are (quasi) celebrities. Candidates need a way to differentiate themselves from one another. This is a major reason political parties exist. The rules of the California recall process utterly cut out this vital role for parties since it is a process of self-nomination and wherein the parties cannot control who uses their label.
But let’s focus on the rules and note that it takes an absolute majority for Newsom to keep or lose his job, but a successor can win election on a plurality. And, indeed, if Newsome does lose and front-runner-of-the-46, Larry Elder, wins he will do so with a pretty small plurality. This is significant, from a democratic theory point of view because if Newsom loses, it will be by a small margin and the NO vote in that scenario would almost certainly be substantially higher than whatever vote share Elder would win.
On the point of the rules, I would turn to my friend and sometimes co-author, Matthew Shugart
First, in April:
Recall elections only exacerbate the worst features of the presidential (including gubernatorial) form of government, in that they increase the already inevitably high personalization of the political process of such a system. As if all of what makes for (in)effective government and policy-making can be put on one individual.
rather than learn the lessons of its irrelevance in this state, the California Republican Party has learned a different lesson. While it may not win state power the normal way, it can harness grievance, the possible low turnout of a special election, and a celebrity to pick off a Democratic governor now and then. But this isn’t the California of 2003, and neither Caitlyn Jenner nor Randy Quaid, nor any of the others in the “clown car” of candidates looks ready to be the next Governator.
And earlier this month:
As the campaign-such as it is-has developed since my writing those words in late April, it is clear that it is indeed all about grievance and hardly about governance. It is also still at risk of being a low turnout affair, which is where the threat to Newsom’s tenure rests. Will enough Democrats mail back their ballots marked NO, when all the enthusiasm is on the side of the terminally aggrieved?
And therein lies the problem from a small-d democratic perspective: the rules of how California runs this type of election have always been a trainwreck waiting to happen, and such a train wreck of democracy just might happen this time. While the recall question on the ballot is a YES/NO option and thus will be decided by a majority of votes cast, the replacement option on the ballot has 46 candidates, and the winner will be the one with a plurality of votes, if the YES wins the first question. Elder leads polling by a wide margin, but with not even 25% of the vote. If we take his current polling level as a share of the decided vote, it is still only around 40%. Moreover, with no Democrat (or rather none with any hint of visibility) running on the replacement side, there are likely to be quite a few voters who vote NO but then do not select a replacement candidate. In other words, if Newsom loses a close contest, his replacement could be elected by significantly fewer votes than Newsom himself earned on the NO side. California now requires a majority for election of all other offices in the state in general elections (under the “top-two” rule), but a replacement special election is still decided by plurality (and with no party primaries).
This outcome-a sub-majority election of a candidate with less voter support than the recalled incumbent, and which can’t be discounted as fantasy-would be a massive miscarriage of democracy, whatever one’s opinion of Newsom (or Elder).
This is exactly right: the system itself is not defensible on democratic theory grounds. (Although as he notes, and as James Joyner wrote about a while back, the notion that the process is unconstitutional seems incorrect).
And, really, once this current go at it is done, the state ought to reform the process (although in my view, they ought to do away with it–I concur with Matthew about the problems of recalls, as outlined in the post from April and as expanded upon the post from August). Really, as he notes (and this applies to what just happened to Cuomo in New York), we would be better off with parliamentary-style executives and the ability of parliamentary majorities to make these kinds of decisions (which would also help shift our politics away from personalism). Clearly, in California, there is majority support for the executive, while in NY, the legislative majority lost confidence in him (and under a parliamentary system, they would have needed neither the extraordinary threshold of impeachment nor the need to shame him into quitting, but rather could have simply held a no-confidence vote).
Some additional reading on the recall, for anyone who might be interested.
Via the LAT we get an early sense of where the state is: California Politics: Who are the recall election’s early voters?
The early numbers look good for Democrats. But Republicans are betting on a late-breaking wave of pro-recall ballots — a wave probably too small to sink Newsom if Democrats turn out in numbers that parallel their true electoral strength but possibly enough to capsize the once-unsinkable governor if his supporters leave their ballots unopened or skip the option of in-person voting.
While Los Angeles and Orange counties have reported returned ballot counts consistent with the statewide average, the early response has been huge in Bay Area counties that are solidly Democratic. San Francisco reported 23% of its ballots have been returned, Alameda County reported 18% of its ballots are back in the hands of elections officials and Santa Clara County reported almost 17% of ballots have been cast.
Compare that with counties where Republicans hold sway: 11% of ballots returned in Riverside County, less than 10% in San Bernardino County, only 7% in Fresno County and a scant 1.9% of ballots returned in Kern County, according to the state survey.
And I would recommend Erza Klein’s column in the NYT: The Gavin Newsom Recall Is a Farce.
After a slow start, California ranks 10th in the nation for coronavirus vaccinations. It’s down to about three cases per 100,000 residents. Its economy is booming. According to Bloomberg, the state “has no peers among developed economies for expanding G.D.P., creating jobs, raising household income, manufacturing growth, investment in innovation, producing clean energy and unprecedented wealth through its stocks and bonds.” State coffers are flush: The governor’s office estimates a $76 billion budget surplus. The Legislative Analyst’s Office puts it at $38 billion. (The difference turns on the definition of the word “surplus.”)
So what is California doing in this moment of plenty? Deciding whether to recall its governor, of course.
It really is amazing when one thinks about it. And, on the one hand, it seems rather unlikely that the majority of Californians want the Covid policies of Florida to be put into place. But on the other, will enough Californians vote to make their views known?
The truly interesting part of the essay, however, focuses on this notion:
We [California] have become what Francis Fukuyama, the Stanford political scientist, calls a “vetocracy” — a system defined by how easy it is, and how many ways there are, to block action.
It is worth the read.