Voices & Choices

Reforming the Recall: Better Elections Lead to Better Outcomes

Reforming the Recall: Better Elections Lead to Better Outcomes

The signatures are confirmed, and Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a recall vote this fall. Now all that remains is the months-long campaign process and spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars. California recall elections are needlessly complicated, and risk replacing an elected official with someone even less popular.

There’s a better way, but let’s start with the law as it is. Voters face a unique, two-question election. First, they have to cast a ballot -- yes or no -- on whether Newsom stays. Then, they are asked to choose his replacement, should the governor be recalled.

The first question is a simple up-or-down. If a majority of voters support the governor completing his term, the recall ends. But if the majority wants him out, things get more interesting. California’s next governor would be whoever gets the most support in that second question, whether they receive a majority or not. Since the ballot is likely to be extraordinarily crowded -- some 135 candidates sought the governorship during the state’s last recall battle, in 2003, when voters replaced Democrat Grey Davis with Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger -- it’s likely that the new governor would fall far short of 50 percent.

The danger, however, is that Newsom could be unseated by a majority of voters -- but then replaced by someone with far less support.

Imagine this: The vote on recall is close, but Newsom is ousted with a 51 to 49 percent vote. But the fight to replace him splinters voters among so many candidates that the state’s new governor takes office with just 25 or 30 percent of the vote. That’s a recipe for a victory by an unrepresentative candidate that a majority of voters did not back and would not have wanted to replace Newsom. And it will make it even more difficult for that governor to unify and lead after a bitter and closely divided recall battle.

A stunning 2019 result in the city of Fall River, Mass., illustrates this danger. When the city’s mayor, Jasiel Correia II, was indicted on charges of wire fraud and tax evasion, 61 percent of voters ousted him from office. But five candidates, including Correia, ran in the new mayoral election. In that race, Correia’s 35 percent of the vote and a small plurality was enough. He was recalled and re-elected at once, even though more than 60 percent backed his removal, and 65 percent of voters supported another candidate as his replacement.

Newsom would not be a candidate in the second election here, if recalled. Nevertheless, California needs a simple mechanism to help determine a majority winner should a governor be recalled. After all, majority winners for statewide offices held by a single person lead to a fairer result and elect public officials with genuine consent of the governed. Plurality governors from a field of dozens can’t make the same claim for popular support.

There’s a better way. Ranked choice voting would ensure that if a governor is recalled, any possible replacement truly represents the will of the people. Instead of marking their ballot for just one candidate, voters would have the option of ranking several choices, in order. The people would speak. Majorities would rule.

The most likely circumstance, after all, is that while dozens of candidates might seek the office, perhaps five or six candidates will rise to the top. Several well-known Republicans, from San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer to Caitlyn Jenner, are gunning for the seat. It’s unclear how Democrats will handle the recall; the party may discourage anyone from running, and encourage the overwhelming blue majority to stick with Newsom or risk a GOP winner. Or, a Democrat could enter the field as a potential insurance policy, as the state’s lieutenant governor did in 2003.

All this forces voters into twisted strategic voting for the candidate they think has the best chance of winning a plurality, based on polls that may or may not be reliable. It turns a recall -- something that is supposed to amplify the people’s voice -- into calculus so unsolvable that people end up with guesswork and little control at all. That’s not what they signed up for.

Already proven to work well in some of California’s largest cities and in federal elections in Maine, ranked choice voting would turn the replacement question into an instant runoff. If no one wins a majority in the first round, the candidates at the bottom are eliminated, and the second choices of their supporters come into play. This empowers voters to cast ballots for the candidates they really want to win. And it encourages politicians not to run a campaign aimed at holding onto a small sliver of intense support, but to reach out to everyone.

After all, that’s why politicians end up facing recalls: Too many voters begin to feel that an elected official is no longer listening to the people, and might even feel above the people. If they’re to be turned out of office -- if voters are to change their minds -- the replacement should be someone who is listening to everyone and commands widespread support. A recall with ranked choice voting returns even more power to the people.

Rob Richie is the CEO and President of FairVote.

David Daley is the author of “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy” and a senior fellow at FairVote.

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