By now, most have heard about Gov. Gavin Newsom’s victory in the 2021 California gubernatorial recall election. Against the Republican tide, the current vote count illustrates that approximately 62.5% of California voters oppose Newsom’s removal. Regardless of whether or not you celebrated this result, there is one clear takeaway from it: California’s recall process must be reformed.
California prides itself on its commitment to democracy, yet the recall election seems to have “recalled” such pride. Our forests are on fire, our dams are drying out and our people are actively facing displacement. Despite these imminent crises, however, our resources and attention were instead directed toward the recall election. With 46 recall candidates on the ballot, the election cost the state government a whopping $276 million.
Why did the recall election cost so much? Why were so many Californians confused during this election? An answer to both of these questions comes from a single solution: Only one name should have been on the ballot.
John Cox should have never been on the ballot. Brandon Ross should have never been on the ballot. Instead, one question with one name should have been the option presented to the voters: “Should Gavin Newsom be recalled?” This would have been the simplest and most efficient way to offset the recall election’s absurd amount of financial costs and voter confusion. It is overwhelming to look at an array of 46 candidates, especially for first-time voters.
As members of the ASUC’s External Affairs Vice President’s Office Vote Coalition, our primary goal is to educate students and community members while encouraging civic engagement. The unnecessary complexities of the recall election made this task difficult.
Despite our individual opinions on the recall election, the Vote Coalition wanted to make September 14’s voting process as easy as possible for students and members of the Berkeley community. We aided in the recall election by participating in the planning and installation of Accessible Voting Locations (AVLs), engaging in social media outreach and offering voter education. As students ourselves, we were able to identify the difficulties and obstacles other students faced when it came to voting or to other civic engagement activities.
AVLs not only provide a place for same-day voter registration and voting, but also provide answers to voters’ questions to clarify the process. Our efforts on social media outreach and voter education informed the Berkeley community about important dates and recall election information. On election day, about 3,000 people utilized the AVL at the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, illuminating the need for such resources.
While it is fortunate that Berkeley has the resources to allow students to be educated on such political matters, this is not the case for the majority of Californians. Many struggled with the recall ballot, not knowing how or what the process was all about. Many did not have access to AVLs or to voter education packages. Simplifying the process down to one question presented on the recall ballot will lower the barriers to civic participation, predicating democracy. Simultaneously, the state government should highly encourage the implementation of AVLs throughout the state of California.
Yet another prominent issue of California’s recall system is the relative ease of initiating a recall election. With significant financial costs and logistical jargon involved, one would assume that it would be difficult to begin a recall process. The reality, however, is quite different.
With signatures from only 12% of the voters in the last governor election required to initiate a recall, a mere 1,495,709 Californians (of approximately 22 million eligible voters) can force the state into spending nearly 276 million dollars.
Simply put, the threshold to initiate a recall election is too low in California.
In other states, such as Kansas, 40% of voter signatures are required. Moreover, 11 of the remaining 18 states with a gubernatorial recall process require at least 25% voter agreement.
The Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies recently conducted a poll to gain insight into public opinion regarding the reform of the current recall system. The poll elucidated that only 30% of participants opposed increasing the percentage of voter signatures required to qualify for a recall election to 25%.
Under the politically polarized status quo where disapproval for elected officials of the opposite party is often expressed, increasing the threshold for a recall election would prevent the recall system from being abused for partisan reasons.
Additionally, 51% of participants in the study favored raising the current threshold required to register as an official candidate, which includes a filing fee of $4,194.94 and 7,000 valid signatures. This proposal could limit the absurd number of candidates on the ballot demonstrated by the 2021 recall election; the overwhelming “plurality” of names on the ballot was one of the fundamental issues of the election.
This issue also extends in a more literal sense. With the current system, a governor is required a majority (more than 50%) of the votes to maintain his position, while the runner-up candidate only requires a plurality. In other words, Newsom could have been replaced by a candidate who had received far fewer votes by simply losing the majority vote.
It is easy to say that voting is a civic right and a civic duty. It is easy to pride ourselves on democracy. It can be difficult, however, to recognize and to address the faults of the current recall process. Just one question and one name would have sufficed the entirety of the recall process. Perhaps the government of California should pose another question regarding the recall election: Should we recall the recall?
Vote Co. is the official, nonpartisan ASUC department dedicated to civic engagement at UC Berkeley.