The Recall Election to Oust Gavin Newsom Is Undemocratic | Opinion

It's a startling twist for a Democratic governor in an overwhelmingly Democratic state, but the effort to recall Newsom has steadily picked up steam. Now, just two weeks weeks from election day, polling shows that voters are about evenly divided on whether Newsom deserves to stay in office. Newsom may very well be out of a job.

There's no doubt that the governor deserves the skepticism. He's failed Californians as a leader we can trust to tell the truth and act with integrity. And yet, despite Newsom's many shortcomings, there is something fundamentally undemocratic about the recall process, and for that reason, California voters should reject it.

This is far from an endorsement of Newsom. The governor mismanaged California's COVID-19 response by enforcing overly punitive and seemingly impulsive public safety measures, mistakes which would have been easier to forgive if he hadn't flaunted his own guidance to attend a posh, maskless dinner party with lobbyists.

Of Newsom's many pandemic-era failures, his mismanagement of public schools has been the most significant. Newsom's deference to local administrators and educator unions allowed the vast majority of California classrooms to remained shuttered through 2020 and into 2021—well after officials authorized California school districts to reopen—all while his own children were attending in-person private school since October.

Newsom's failures and dishonesty aren't limited to his pandemic response. He's "misled the public" by wildly exaggerating his efforts to prevent wildfires; he's overpromised and underdelivered on everything from homelessness and health care to housing and tax reform; and he's catered to special interests—teachers unions in particular—which have rewarded him generously through millions of dollars in campaign contributions to fight the recall.

For all this and more, he deserves to be voted out—but not in a recall.

You may think that the recall effort is the pinnacle of democracy, a poorly performing public official being rejected by the people whose consent he needs to govern and no longer has. But while the recall vote may give the appearance of a democratic reform, it is far from it.

Let's start with the ballot itself, which poses two questions to California voters. First, it asks should Newsom be recalled? And then it asks, who should replace him? This means that even voters who choose "No" on the question about whether he should be recalled can still pick a replacement candidate in question two. If a majority votes to recall Newsom, whichever candidate gets the most votes to replace him will become the new governor, even if it's not a majority.

Now, there are no fewer than 46 replacement candidates listed. And not one of them is named Gavin Newsom, who is legally barred from competing as a replacement for himself, which means that this could lead to a situation where a clear plurality of voters—say, 49 percent—vote to keep Newsom in office even as he is supplanted by a candidate with far less support—say, 15 percent.

By any sensible definition of democracy, this isn't it. It requires Olympic-level mental gymnastics to conclude that this system—in which the governor competes in a majoritarian election while all the others compete in a pluralitarian one—is fair to the governor and his supporters.

And so, despite how enticing it might be to punish Newsom for his poor leadership (and trust me, I feel enticed) those of us who oppose him should wait until next year's regularly scheduled elections—the Democratic primary or the general election—to remove him from office.

Gavin Newsom
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - AUGUST 13: California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a news conference at Manny's on August 13, 2021 in San Francisco, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

It's not just because of the structure of the ballot, though. Our hyper-partisan era exacerbates the undemocratic nature of California's recall procedures. In this environment, it's near-inevitable that any governor, Democrat or Republican, will face a recall attempt from antagonistic partisans. And given how easy it is for recall efforts in California to qualify for an election—organizers only need to muster signatures equivalent to 12 percent of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election—future attempts will likely keep coming.

Holding unpopular politicians to regular account in this way would be well and good if the actual recall vote wasn't so heavily tilted against the incumbent. But the current rules work in tandem to allow a small, unrepresentative slice of Californians to both force a recall and then select a new governor.

And it's not only Democrats who should worry about the practical implications of current recall rules. If a Republican ever manages to take control of the governor's office, Democrats would be all but certain to reach the 12 percent signature benchmark needed to prompt a recall. And given the strength of the Democratic Party in California and the fractured nature of the Republican coalition, it's difficult to imagine any Republican governor successfully garnering the outright majority needed to rebuff the recall.

To be clear, I'm no hard-line Republican: Last year, I managed a Democratic campaign in one of California's most competitive State Assembly elections—a campaign that Newsom himself supported, full disclosure. But the governor has shown himself to be unworthy of the office, and for that, he should be voted out in 2022.

Newsom deserves to lose his job. But the recall is an unfair tool being used to circumvent the democratic process. The California legislature should either move to allow Newsom's name to appear in the second question of the ballot, or to abolish the recall process and rely instead on an impeachment procedure that lies in the hands of elected representatives, as we do at the federal level.

But the recall against Newsom is already underway. It's too late for procedural restructuring this round. And so California voters should stand up for the democratic process, refuse to oust Newsom next month, and mobilize to beat him in 2022 instead.

Seth Moskowitz is a journalist and an associate editor at Persuasion. He has previously worked as a Democratic campaign strategist. Follow him on Twitter @skmoskowitz.

The views in this article are the writer's own.