What Drives the California Recall Election

 

On September 14, Californians will face a ballot issue in two parts. Part 1 is simplicity itself: “Shall Gavin Newsom be recalled (removed) from the office of governor?” If the answer is yes, what follows is a weird procedure whereby all of the qualified replacement candidates for the office will be listed, from which the candidate “receiving the highest number of votes” will fill out the remainder of the current term, which ends on January 2, 2023.

This recall procedure was put into place in 1911 as part of a progressive reform movement to circumvent the legislature and the ordinary election cycle, in order to improve the odds that an outsider could wrest control over the political processes from corrupt insiders. In a twist of fate, that recall process is now being used against an unabashed progressive for the same reason: to take control from the political branches in order to neutralize one-party rule widely seen as unresponsive to the will of the public at large. And if it fails, it is likely because all the big money is behind Newsom, whose $51 million (and counting) is more than double that of all the forces arrayed against him.

Yet the remarkable structure of the recall procedure may keep the race close. The process first makes Newsom a stand-alone target, after which the huge free-for-all among multiple candidates could permit a fringe contender to take the election with only 14 percent of first place votes. Thus, the current system does not allow ranked-order priorities (whereby second and lower choices matter), which earlier this year created so much uncertainty in New York City’s mayoral election that the (relatively) conservative Eric Adams managed to squeak by a long list of more progressive candidates. Transposed to California, the first-past-the-post system could result in the selection of Larry Elder, a staunch and controversial conservative talk-show host in a strongly blue state.

The prospect of that sudden transition has the liberal media in a state of deep dread, not so much for what will happen in California but for the national repercussions. Senator Dianne Feinstein is said to be in failing health, and if she should either die or resign while in office, the California governor would make an interim appointment to fill that seat.  With Elder as governor, the US Senate flips to 51-49 Republican, at which point the entire Biden agenda goes up in flames: no new infrastructure legislation, no transformation of the voting rights system, no major antitrust reform, no steady stream of liberal democratic judicial appointments, no general legislative push toward solar and wind energy. Yet the odds of Elder winning the round two derby have been enhanced because the Democrats thought (rightly) that it would be a mistake for any Democrat to put his or her name in the second ballot, lest it induce swing voters to shy away from Newsom in the hope that another Democrat could be chosen in part two of the ballot. This strategy could backfire, however, because the want of any Democratic candidate on the second part of the ballot will induce anti-Newsom people to come out in force, knowing that they prefer anyone whose name is on the second list to the current incumbent.

To make matters still more complicated, the California recall is likely to turn not on broad geopolitical issues but on local matters of direct concern to Californian voters. At the symbolic level, Newsom got into serious trouble when he dined at, perhaps, California’s toniest restaurant, the French Laundry, without masks—in violation of his own COVID-19 restrictions. Many people rightly throw up their hands at such large issues as climate change, electric cars, power blackouts, rising crime rates, housing shortages, and the gig economy, but they can smell a hypocrite a mile away. Hence, this singularly unimportant incident acts as a powerful beacon that gives people who are uncertain on big substantive policies a reason to support the recall. A person who violates a minor rule, the thinking goes, cannot be trusted to lead a state whose economy is over $3.2 trillion per year.

Indeed, that demonstration in the here-and-now may well prove more powerful than the standard element in the current Democratic playbook, which argues that even a bad Newson is better than a terrible Trump clone who is sure to lead California badly astray on domestic policy. In what looks to be a close race, it is an open question whether this strategy will work, now that Trump is more than six months out of office and a set of international calamities in Afghanistan has tarnished the Biden legacy. Many Democratic writers now treat the recall as antidemocratic.

But in my view, the decisive arguments in favor of the recall in this case are simple. Single-party government over any long period of time will everywhere lead to inevitable forms of corruption as powerful and entrenched interest groups are able to coalesce their power. Separation of powers is at its lowest ebb when all branches of government are in the hands of the same group of insiders. Any judicial check on the aggrandizement of power is less likely if, as is the case in California, its sitting supreme court justices are appointed and then approved by voters, and share the same progressive tendencies as both political branches of government.

At this point, there is much to be said for the general proposition that a new broom sweeps clean—that it is more important to remove Newsom than to fret over who is likely to be appointed in the second stage. But it is a mistake to assume that none of the underlying substantive issues should be taken into account. In one sense, California looks to be in great shape, as its $3.2 trillion–plus economy churns out record tax revenues and is home to a financial elite that the progressives hope to subject to both a top income tax rate of 16.8 percent and a state wealth tax. This combination, unfortunately, might induce some of its most successful citizens to leave before it is enacted, lest they be faced with a hefty exit tax after waiting too long.

But the malaise cuts even deeper than this. Governor Newsom has constantly boasted that California is a great state for doing business, but the evidence suggests that the Golden State has lost some of its long-time luster. The number of corporations that are pulling up stakes in California is rising sharply: companies like Oracle, Palantir, and Hewlett-Packard, and billionaires like Larry Ellison and Elon Musk, are all headed to lower-tax states. That exodus is being joined by many young entrepreneurs and middle class workers who recoil at the high housing costs in California, driven by strong zoning and environmental laws. In the latest census, California lost electoral votes for the first time since gaining statehood in 1850. Keeping the current leadership will do nothing to inspire the confidence needed in local government to be able to stem the hemorrhaging, leaving a hollowed-out demographic with some aging superstars and a large concentration of low-income persons.

There are, in principle, two ways to respond to these pressures. The first is to double down on certain bad policies that go after the usual dubious suspects. That is exactly what California is doing with its war on fossil fuels through its electric car mandates, which wouldn’t be necessary if these cars could deliver their promised efficiency, but which will unnecessarily raise the costs of new automobiles if they do not. At this point, the law of unintended consequences will kick in, so that the higher costs of new cars will induce owners to keep their older, dirtier cars on the road longer. That same deadly cycle will take place with housing restrictions that force people into ever longer commutes that, guess what, result in higher levels of emissions.

The alternative path, shunned by the current governor, should be taken no matter who prevails in the recall election. Market liberalization is the only path to undo the mess in which California finds itself. Competitive markets increase output, profits, and, yes, even tax revenues. They reduce the heavy costs of the administrative state by removing scads of misguided regulations from the books. Higher revenues and lower costs are the one magnet that can induce Californians who are teetering on the brink to stay in the state.

California did not become an economic powerhouse by expanding transfer payments and choking technical innovation. It will not be able to regain its place in the sun if it continues to double down on its current policies. The same basic principles that made Adam Smith a household name apply today. The state should do a few functions well––ensuring safety and order, which cannot be done by defunding the police, and supplying infrastructure. But the moment it loses sight of these core missions, it will go deeper in the downward cycle that sparked the political rebellion behind this recall election. Should Newsom survive this vote, he should alter his current policies lest California continue to decline.

© 2021 by the Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University.

Published in Politics
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  1. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    A fantastic piece of writing on the situation my beloved state since 1964 finds herself in. She is being held hostage, and we long time residents with her. I pray for a return to common sense priorities as I sit in my backyard breathing smoke-tainted air. I know very well of what you write about. A beautifully written analysis. Thank you. 

    • #1
  2. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    God-LovingWoman (View Comment):

    A fantastic piece of writing on the situation my beloved state since 1964 finds herself in. She is being held hostage, and we long time residents with her. I pray for a return to common sense priorities as I sit in my backyard breathing smoke-tainted air. I know very well of what you write about. A beautifully written analysis. Thank you.

    Just so it’s not tobacco smoke – we got ordinances for that. 

    • #2
  3. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    CA citizens are getting what they keep voting for, over an over. 

    Well. The Cities. 

    One man, one vote has been a boon to the liberals, because it lets their communities destroy ones they don’t like. 

    • #3
  4. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    I have mixed feelings here. I don’t believe election recalls are a good thing or even should be allowed. An elected official cannot make the hard decisions that may go against public opinion and yet be good decisions. He would constantly have to look over his shoulder. You elect someone, he should have the allotted time to enact his agenda. It seems contrary to a republican form of government to have recalls. That said, since it’s legal in California I hope Newsome is out and Larry Elder takes his place. 

    • #4
  5. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    Excellent commentary, but a few things that should be pointed out.

    A correction to your information: Californians have little ability to keep older, dirtier cars, as the people in the state legislature traditionally write laws which do not permit it. I can’t even remember how many people I knew of who simply junked their cars – which from an automotive stand point were excellent – but which could not pass the smog test. Sure, some of these were junkers and were best taken off to the Big junkyard in the Sky.

    But others were cars that most of us would give their eye teeth for.

    Secondly, and this is an addition: just as  those of us who desire The Recall Election  to rid us of Newsom have feared from the moment it was announced that the recall petitions were legit, Newsom has already gone and  followed the 2020 Dem Party Election Playbook and issued massive numbers of unrequested paper mail in ballots.

    Who knows how many have been mailed out? Supposedly every voter in this state of 39 million people has gotten one.

    But many of us who are following the Arizona  2020 Election Audit understand that we can expect the same type of hanky panky here in Sept 2021 as has played out in AZ in 2020: we can expect hundreds of thousands of ballots being collected at curbside ballot collection boxes, with scanty chain of protection evidence to be recorded. Ballots that read “No” to the idea of removing Newsom, which will somehow be recorded before any evidence of the ballots ever  having been sent out. More malarkey of the type that “Louder with Crowder” discovered – voters whose residences ended up being highway median islands, dilapadated apartment buildings where no one had lived in a decade with  signs on the doorways reading how the places had been condemned. These are for starters.

    End of Part One

    • #5
  6. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    Part Two:

    Another addition:

    Then in a moment of boredom, I read through the entire Voters Guidebook. The front cover is just the patriotic looking cover of red white and blue.  Name of the Election and its date. The back inside cover explains what polling places in my county still exist and which are new.

    But two or three pages before that page was a bottom of the page instruction on how to vote. It emphatically stated that to vote, the voter should mail in their ballot so it arrives at the election center by the 7th of the month of September.  Without a postmarked date of Sept 7th or earlier, your ballot is not valid. However you can vote in person at your designated polling place. But if you do, you must bring you ballot with you and surrender it to a polling official. (I have been advised by fellow Republicans to  ensure it is marked with the word “Surrendered” across it.)

    If a voter doesn’t bring the mail in ballot with them, they will be issued a provisional ballot. These are always problematic – often counted after all the other ballots have been. Also for some reason often lost.

    Since supposedly every Calif voter has already received a mail in ballot, many will have gone to people who have never asked for a mail in ballot. These voters, unless they read the guide from cover to cover won’t know to bring the mail in ballot with them when they go in person to vote. Then as insult to injury, the  back cover seems very perky in its suggestion about making sure to get to the polling place before it closes, without a hint about the mail in ballot situation. How hard would it have been to have put in one sentence “For more info on voting using the mail in ballot, refer to Page Such and Such.” ??  (I have served as both an election judge and election observer, off and on since 1980, and many people don’t read thru the Voter Guide. But they do look at the back cover.)

    I have very serious concerns about the election running smoothly in terms of honesty and its results  ending up representing the will of the people. With more concerns to follow if there sudden outbreaks of fires in Republican places, or a new and intense flare up of COVID such that the governor mandates that we aren’t allowed to leave our homes on the day of the election.

    • #6
  7. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):

    Part Two:

    Another addition:

    Then in a moment of boredom, I read through the entire Voters Guidebook. The front cover is just the patriotic looking cover of red white and blue. Name of the Election and its date. The back inside cover explains what polling places in my county still exist and which are new.

    But two or three pages before that page was a bottom of the page instruction on how to vote. It emphatically stated that to vote, the voter should mail in their ballot so it arrives at the election center by the 7th of the month of September. Without a postmarked date of Sept 7th or earlier, your ballot is not valid. However you can vote in person at your designated polling place. But if you do, you must bring you ballot with you and surrender it to a polling official. (I have been advised by fellow Republicans to ensure it is marked with the word “Surrendered” across it.)

    If a voter doesn’t bring the mail in ballot with them, they will be issued a provisional ballot. These are always problematic – often counted after all the other ballots have been. Also for some reason often lost.

    Since supposedly every Calif voter has already received a mail in ballot, many will have gone to people who have never asked for a mail in ballot. These voters, unless they read the guide from cover to cover won’t know to bring the mail in ballot with them when they go in person to vote. Then as insult to injury, the back cover seems very perky in its suggestion about making sure to get to the polling place before it closes, without a hint about the mail in ballot situation. How hard would it have been to have put in one sentence “For more info on voting using the mail in ballot, refer to Page Such and Such.” ?? (I have served as both an election judge and election observer, off and on since 1980, and many people don’t read thru the Voter Guide. But they do look at the back cover.)

    I have very serious concerns about the election running smoothly in terms of honesty and its results ending up representing the will of the people. With more concerns to follow if there sudden outbreaks of fires in Republican places, or a new and intense flare up of COVID such that the governor mandates that we aren’t allowed to leave our homes on the day of the election.

    Bless you CarolJoy. Thank you for this…I hadn’t picked up on the 9-7 date although I intend to vote in person. I will be sure to bring my mail in ballot with me. 

    The disregard for the sanctity of the voting process disgusts me. I want my state back and my country back and everything that was brilliant about both to come back.

    • #7
  8. John Park Member
    John Park
    @jpark

    With the Biden Administration’s new respect for the claptrap known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, will the Biden Administration put heat on the notoriously strict California zoning laws? Or, will the presence of two Democrat Senators keep the state safe?

    • #8
  9. Cosmik Phred Member
    Cosmik Phred
    @CosmikPhred

    The Haircut has never believed that the rules apply to him.  

    Anyone else remember his “whether you like it or not” speech re: gay marriage?  He had no authority to issue marriage licenses as mayor of SF.  However, there was no political downside for him to do so.  So he did.  Big freaking hero.  And then he jumped out of SF during his second term.

    He’s an activist in a suit that has the gift of wonky consultant-speak.  

    “Let me tell you something, dahlings…it’s better to look good than feel good.”

    • #9
  10. Cosmik Phred Member
    Cosmik Phred
    @CosmikPhred

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    CA citizens are getting what they keep voting for, over an over.

    Well. The Cities.

    One man, one vote has been a boon to the liberals, because it lets their communities destroy ones they don’t like.

    When I was in Oakland, the best I could do for city offices was to vote for the least worst mayoral and city council candidates.  And for everything else, vote in vain against democrats.  

    So many in the cities live in an alternate universe until they get mugged – literally – by reality.

    • #10
  11. Manny Member
    Manny
    @Manny

    Cosmik Phred (View Comment):

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    CA citizens are getting what they keep voting for, over an over.

    Well. The Cities.

    One man, one vote has been a boon to the liberals, because it lets their communities destroy ones they don’t like.

    When I was in Oakland, the best I could do for city offices was to vote for the least worst mayoral and city council candidates. And for everything else, vote in vain against democrats.

    So many in the cities live in an alternate universe until they get mugged – literally – by reality.

    Tell me about it. I live in NYC. 

    • #11
  12. Ontheleftcoast Member
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    Soros is supporting Newsome. Oh, and the people vying for the office if Newsome is recalled? They have contribution limits. Newsome doesn’t.

    Billionaire philanthropist and progressive, George Soros, who financially supports and drives leftist causes all over the world, has provided an additional $500,000 to a political action committee opposing the California recall of Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom.

    Soros’ donations to Newsom thus far have reached a total of $1,000,000.

    According to the Associated Press, filings with the California Secretary of State’s office show that George Soros contributed to a group called “Stop the Republican Recall of Governor Newsom.”

     

    • #12
  13. CuriousKevmo Member
    CuriousKevmo
    @CuriousKevmo

    Newsom won’t be recalled. 

    His funding advantage is tremendous as evidenced by being inundated with TV and radio ads about “The Republican Recall”.  Which is funny because were it true they’d have nothing to worry about, Republicans represent about 24% of the population in this state.  And as others have stated, the election will have very little integrity.   I doubt we will see a non-progressive government until the state fully collapses.

    My worry is that he will be bolstered by surviving the recall and will more than double down on badness and revenge.

    • #13
  14. Cosmik Phred Member
    Cosmik Phred
    @CosmikPhred

    CuriousKevmo (View Comment):

    Newsom won’t be recalled.

    His funding advantage is tremendous as evidenced by being inundated with TV and radio ads about “The Republican Recall”. Which is funny because were it true they’d have nothing to worry about, Republicans represent about 24% of the population in this state. And as others have stated, the election will have very little integrity. I doubt we will see a non-progressive government until the state fully collapses.

    My worry is that he will be bolstered by surviving the recall and will more than double down on badness and revenge.

    And now the campaign ads have morphed into the Newsom vs. Elder and “people will die” phase.

    Well, at least I got a notification my ballot was accepted and counted…

    • #14
  15. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):

    Soros is supporting Newsome. Oh, and the people vying for the office if Newsome is recalled? They have contribution limits. Newsome doesn’t.

    Billionaire philanthropist and progressive, George Soros, who financially supports and drives leftist causes all over the world, has provided an additional $500,000 to a political action committee opposing the California recall of Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom.

    Soros’ donations to Newsom thus far have reached a total of $1,000,000.

    According to the Associated Press, filings with the California Secretary of State’s office show that George Soros contributed to a group called “Stop the Republican Recall of Governor Newsom.”

     

    Candidate for governor Kevin Kiley pointed out in his most recent remarks that it is not true that every contribution that has come to Newsom has come from Corporations and his inner circle of buddies who meet with him at The French Laundry restaurant.

    Yes, he received one million dollars from an individual, George Soros.

    • #15