The recall – allowing voters to fire elected officials before their terms expire – was one aspect of the populist political reform movement that swept through California more than a century ago.
The recall, the initiative (direct legislating by voters) and the referendum (empowering voters to overturn newly enacted laws) gave Californians the right to confront, and even bypass, governments deemed to be ineffective and/or corrupt.
The three processes were only occasionally used for many decades, but that changed as the state’s politics became polarized and mercurial during the final years of the 20th century, and even more so in the first decades of the 21st.
In the aftermath of Proposition 13, the iconic property tax limit passed by voters in 1978, the initiative became an important political policy tool, eventually eclipsing the traditional legislative process.
Writing, qualifying, financing and enacting ballot measures has become a multi-million-dollar industry and this election year will be no different.
The referendum has been used more sparingly to overturn laws passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, but even the threat of a referendum may force legislators to alter legislation before it’s passed.
And then there’s the recall, until recently the least-used of the three tools.
Two Republican legislators were recalled in the 1990s for helping Democrats retain control of the Assembly but the big one occurred in 2003.
Voters tossed out Gov. Gray Davis just a year after he had been elected to a second term and installed action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger as his successor.
Davis had bungled two very high-profile situations – a state budget deficit and the near-collapse of the state’s two largest electric utilities – but probably would have survived the recall had Schwarzenegger not been on the ballot.
This year, voters in two California communities face recall efforts, one aimed at Democratic Sen. Josh Newman in Orange County, the other at Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky.
The cases against both are paper thin.
The state Republican Party is the chief proponent of the recall effort against Newman, claiming that he betrayed his constituents by voting for a state gas tax increase to raise money for transportation.
The gas tax is unpopular, to be sure, and could be repealed by one of those pending initiatives this year. However, Newman was only one of the 27 senators who voted for the bill, including one Republican.
Newman’s real sin is that he captured a Senate seat that Republicans had held for decades and that his win gave Democrats a 27-seat supermajority. In other words, it’s just a partisan maneuver.
That said, neither party has clean hands. Democratic leaders also deserve criticism for making election law changes specifically to help Newman survive.
And then there’s Judge Persky, who faces recall because he gave a shockingly lenient sentence to Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner – six months in jail – after Brock was convicted of three felony counts of sexual assault on an incapacitated young woman.
The case became symbolic evidence, in the minds of many, that the criminal justice system takes crimes against women too lightly.
Persky’s decision can be fairly criticized, but, as with Newman, his judicial conduct does not approach the incompetence, neglect or dishonesty that the recall was designed to combat.
Were Newman and Persky to be ousted, it could bring more chaos to California’s already fragile structure of governance, declaring open season on any official who happens to do something that’s unpopular and encouraging politicians to protect themselves by distorting election laws even more.
CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.