Democratic state lawmakers moved Tuesday to limit the “hyperpartisanship” they said has increasingly corrupted California’s local recall elections, over the objection of Republicans who said it could boost costs and thwart voters’ will.
Currently, voters generally decide whether to recall a sitting official and choose that official’s replacement at the same time and on the same ballot.
But that could result in a replacement taking office with a minority of votes in a multi-candidate field, and with potentially fewer votes than the official who is ousted.
That “offers bad actors a powerful incentive for targeting an elected official with whom they disagree, in order to replace them with someone who would otherwise not enjoy the support of a majority of voters,” said Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman.
The pending bill still would allow voters to recall a sitting local government official but eliminate the second step, leaving the local government to appoint a replacement or call a special election to fill the vacancy.
“Elections will be restored to their intended purpose of allowing for a referendum on the integrity or fitness of the recalled official, and not as an end-around to subvert standard electoral processes,” said Newman, who himself was recalled from the Senate in 2018 before regaining his seat two years later.
California is one of 30 states that allows for the recall of local officials, and it has recently had some bruising battles. Voters in San Francisco in June ousted their district attorney in mid-term, though voters there already use a process similar to the pending legislation. And opponents of Los Angeles’ prosecutor have failed twice to mount recall elections there.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, last year easily defeated a recall attempt that critics said could have replaced him with a Republican who received a minority of votes.
Statewide recalls would not be affected by the pending measure, and Democratic Sen. Steve Glazer said he fears prospects for broader reforms “have dimmed over time.”
But local recall efforts in California have soared in recent years, from an average of 13 that qualified for the ballot annually between 2010 and 2020. However in 2021 alone 70 local officials faced recalls, Newman said.
That is voters’ right, though “we may not like it, particularly if we are the target of that recall,” objected Republican Sen. Melissa Melendez.
“I don’t know that we need to meddle with laws that have been in place for decades that have worked and are doing their job,” added GOP Sen. Brian Jones. “It’s a solution in search of a problem.”
The Senate approved the bill 29-8, sending it back to the Assembly for a final vote before lawmakers adjourn at month’s end. It would then go to Newsom for his consideration.