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California recall

California recall: Is populist tool undermining democracy?

For years, the Southern Pacific Railroad – the richest, most powerful corporation in California – had a stranglehold on corrupt politicians in the state, including through bribes. In 1911, the progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson and newly elected legislators hit back with a triple punch of direct democracy: the ballot initiative, the referendum, and the recall,…

For years, the Southern Pacific Railroad – the richest, most powerful corporation in California – had a stranglehold on corrupt politicians in the state, including through bribes. In 1911, the progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson and newly elected legislators hit back with a triple punch of direct democracy: the ballot initiative, the referendum, and the recall, giving the people the power to make laws, overturn laws, and remove elected officials.

Now Johnson’s intent is being turned upside down, says Kathryn Olmsted, a history professor at the University of California, Davis. If a majority of voters decide to oust Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, he would be replaced by the challenger with the most votes: conservative talk-show host Larry Elder. Recent polls show Mr. Newsom will probably keep his job, but the possibility that a duly elected governor could be booted by a minority of voters who don’t like what he’s doing greatly concerns her. 

“The progressives put the recall in place to punish corrupt legislators or governors, and now it’s being used because people don’t like the policies,” she says. This is potentially “undermining democracy.”

Why We Wrote This

California’s recall option started life as a tool to fight corruption. A century later, with the GOP outnumbered almost 2-to-1 and partisanship raging, the conservative minority sees it as the last hope to claim leadership.

Bakersfield, Calif.

Hiram Johnson would be “horrified” by Tuesday’s special election to recall California’s governor, Gavin Newsom. 

So says historian Kathryn Olmsted, speaking about California’s great reformer governor of more than a century ago who ushered in the recall as a tool to fight corruption in government. 

For years, the Southern Pacific Railroad – the richest, most powerful corporation in the state – had a stranglehold on corrupt politicians in the state, including through bribes. In 1911, Governor Johnson and newly elected legislators – all progressive for their time – hit back with a triple punch of direct democracy: the vaunted ballot initiative, the referendum, and the recall, giving the people the power to make laws, overturn laws, and remove elected officials. It was the same year that women in California won the right to vote, nearly a decade ahead of the nation.

Why We Wrote This

California’s recall option started life as a tool to fight corruption. A century later, with the GOP outnumbered almost 2-to-1 and partisanship raging, the conservative minority sees it as the last hope to claim leadership.

Now Johnson’s intent is being turned upside down, says. Dr. Olmsted, a history professor at the University of California, Davis. If a majority of voters decide to oust Democratic Governor Newsom, he would be replaced by the challenger with the most votes. That’s conservative talk-show host Larry Elder, who, according to a statewide poll released Friday, has 38% support among likely voters who plan to vote for a replacement. Recent polls show Mr. Newsom will probably keep his job, with a comfortable 16– to 20-point lead, depending on the poll. But the possibility that a duly elected governor could be booted by a minority of voters who don’t like what he’s doing greatly concerns her. 

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor

Republican talk-show host Larry Elder, leading candidate to replace California’s Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom in a special election Sept. 14, pauses for selfies at a rally in Bakersfield Sept. 9.

“The progressives put the recall in place to punish corrupt legislators or governors, and now it’s being used because people don’t like the policies,” she says.

Three years ago, Governor Newsom crushed his Republican opponent, winning a record 61% of the vote. If he’s replaced by a candidate with only a minority of support among voters, a recall will overturn the will of the people, according to Dr. Olmsted. She says it’s potentially “undermining democracy,” which is the exact opposite of what Johnson wanted: more democracy.

Questions about whether this recall election is democratic have been swirling all summer. In August, a federal judge dismissed a suit that challenged its constitutionality. Even so, Democrats, who control every state executive position as well as the Legislature, are talking about the need for recall reform, while the Republican minority sees this as their best chance at the governorship in a deep-blue state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-to-1.

“It’s important to have that mechanism in place, and every state should have it,” says Marissa Simmer, a retired superior court supervisor in Kern County, a heavily Republican area in the state’s vast Central Valley. The local economy relies on agriculture, oil, and gas, and Ms. Simmer faults the governor for his water and energy policies that are hurting farmers and the fossil fuel industry. 

She shared her concerns last Thursday in Bakersfield, where Mr. Elder had stopped by a local park to rally an enthusiastic crowd on his “Recall Express” statewide bus tour. “He’s our last best hope for California,” she says.

Year of the recall

Only 19 states allow recall elections, most of them west of the Mississippi River. This will be only the fourth gubernatorial recall election in the nation’s history, and the second in California’s. Although recalls at all levels of government have been declining in recent years, last year saw a big increase in recall attempts – at least 434 recall attempts or threats, including against 14 governors, says Joshua Spivak, a recall expert at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York. This year has topped that, with more than 500 attempts.

“There is one issue that dominated,” says Mr. Spivak. The pandemic. “In the past, there has never been an issue that cut across anywhere,” because recalls are usually about local issues.

Francine Kiefer/The Christian Science Monitor

Laura, who did not want her full name used, holds a sign at a rally for a Republican candidate for governor, talk show host Larry Elder, in Bakersfield, California, Sept. 9. She likes that Mr. Elder wants to roll back state mandates on masks and vaccines. The lifelong Californian says she and her husband are exploring other states – and governors – in their plan to relocate.

In behemoth California, the most populous state in the nation, it’s not just the governor who is under fire. In San Francisco, organizers say they have more than enough signatures for a reca

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