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Editorial

The Democrats' cynical move to protect one of their own

California Republicans are wrong to try to recall Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) from office for casting a vote they don’t like, and they have compounded the offense by doing it in a dishonest way. Voters in this mostly Orange and Los Angeles County district are being told that signing a recall petition will stop the “car tax” that they say Newman voted for — which it won’t.

And besides, that’s not what the Newman recall is really about, anyway. The state’s GOP sees a chance to strip the Democrats of their supermajority in the Senate by forcing this one legislator into a special recall election where turnout might swing more conservative. The so-called car tax (which is really a desperately needed plan to invest $52 billion in California’s aging transportation infrastructure) is just a fig leaf for political power play.

But Democratic lawmakers have responded to this nakedly political act with, we’re sorry to say, an even more nakedly self-serving political act. They are trying to ram through last-minute changes to the state’s long-standing recall process that would slow if not stop this one particular recall election. The new provisions include an extension of the time voters have to rescind a signature from a recall petition and a requirement that county registrars verify every single individual signature rather than use the standard sample method of verification, among other changes that collectively would cause the process to drag on for months.

Because the rule changes are in what’s known as a budget trailer bill, they will be voted on Thursday without a full public hearing process and, if passed, will go into effect immediately. The new rules would be retroactive, meaning that the Newman recall would have to adjust mid-course.

Democrats say the hastily written rules are justified because of what they say is a new tactic of using recall elections to undo legitimate elections, and because of the unprecedented level of deceit in this campaign. But neither misleading campaigns nor recall attempts are new to California politics. Just two years ago, Sens. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Bill Monning (D-Carmel) were the subject of recall attempt by people furious about the passage of SB 277, a law making it more difficult for children to avoid having public school vaccinations. Over the years, dozens of recalls have been launched against legislators and governors from both parties. The difference is that most of those recalls did not have the money or momentum to qualify for the ballot, and the one against Newman just might.

We’re not saying there’s no merit to the proposed changes. Perhaps it makes sense to give voters a longer time to retract a signature. Maybe a 3% sampling of signatures on a petition isn’t sufficient. But there are many questions that need to be answered before a wholesale rewrite of the election law is approved, and they won’t be answered without hearings and public testimony from elections experts, county registrars and voters. This bill is being slipped into law too quickly.

And what’s most irksome is that the new law, if approved, would be applied retroactively to the Newman recall. It’s simply not fair to change the rules in the middle of the process. Recall proponents in this case followed the legal process that has been in place for years and that few had suggested were problematic until now. If the proponents broke the law by lying about the content of the recall petition — and it’s not clear they did — then there’s a legal remedy. In fact, Newman's supporters on Wednesday filed a complaint with state and local authorities asking for an investigation into the recall tactics.

For the record, it seems hasty and irresponsible to recall a lawmaker like Newman over a single vote. If an elected official is proven corrupt or incompetent or makes a practice of casting votes at odds with the will of his or her constituents, then, yes, a recall shouldn’t be out of the question.

Newman cast a hard vote on the transportation funding package, and it was the right choice. Both Republicans and Democrats have made wrong ones in response.

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