California State Legislators Consider Reforming Recall Elections Process

By Cynthia Cai
Cynthia Cai
Cynthia Cai
September 16, 2021 Updated: September 16, 2021

Two California state legislators are calling for a reform of California’s provisions for recall elections, describing the current system as “flawed.”

The announcement came a day after the Sept. 14 recall election of incumbent Gov. Gavin Newsom. According to unofficial results from the night after the election, Newsom’s position as governor survived the recall effort.

Assemblymember Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park) and Senator Steve Glazer (D-Contra Costa) said in a press release, “[We] are determined to fix a broken system in the wake of the 2021 gubernatorial recall election, which raised questions about whether a system designed in the early 20th century has enough checks and balances to ensure democratic and fair elections.”

Berman argued: “I think yesterday’s election highlighted the fundamentally undemocratic nature of California’s existing recall process. California law should not allow an elected official to be recalled and replaced by someone else who receives fewer votes.”

The legislators say they intend to look into the definitions and conditions of when a recall is applicable. California’s recall process has existed for 110 years. Despite numerous attempts to recall the state’s governers, only two have qualified for the ballot: the 2003 recall of then-governor Gray Davis and this year’s attempted recall of Newsom.

Glazer told the press: “Neither of us are suggesting that the recall process be eliminated. We’re simply saying that accountability is good and that it needs to be maintained. But we have to look for ways to modernize it; and understand how it’s been manipulated over the last couple decades in a way that we think might be counterproductive.”

The two chairs said they will discuss the idea with other state legislators to come to a consensus and eventually allow California voters to decide whether or not to adopt recall reforms.

They are also considering analyzing and potentially mimicking other states’ recall election processes. Currently, only 19 of the 50 states have an official recall election process.

California is among the six states where a successor is chosen on the recall election ballot; nine states hold a separate special election; and five states appoint a successor. Of the states that have recall processes, California has a relatively lower threshold for certifying a recall election to take place.

To initiate a recall, the Secretary of State must receive a petition alleging a reason for recall, and proponents have 160 days to gather the minimum number of required petition signatures (12 percent of the votes cast in the previous election for the office).

Other states’ minimum signature requirements are between 15 and 40 percent, and proponents usually have between 60 and 150 days to gather signatures (Louisiana gives 180 days and Washington gives 270 days).

Legislators did not give an exact timeline of when they would draft and finalize such an initiative, though they said October is the earliest time they foresee the state legislature possibly convening to discuss the issue.

Cynthia Cai