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Editorial: The recall was a bad idea, but now that it’s on, it needs to be fairly run

Opponents asked for signatures for the "Recall Gavin Newsom" campaign on January 19, 2021 in Fair Oaks, California.
Opponents asked for signatures for the “Recall Gavin Newsom” campaign on January 19, 2021 in Fair Oaks, California.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

The recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom hasn’t been underway for years. It only feels that way because his critics have been trying to unseat him — unsuccessfully so far — since he took office in 2019.

And there’s a while yet to go until recall election day. No one knows how long the wait will be, thanks to recent changes that have extended to absurd lengths the process to certify and schedule the election, giving the entire endeavor a frustrating uncertainty.

Experts have speculated that the vote probably will be held in November. A last-minute bill being pushed by Democratic lawmakers, however, could dramatically shorten that timeline by waiving some provisions in state election law, allowing a recall vote as soon as August.

While getting this political farce over months earlier is mighty appealing, it shouldn’t be a rush job.

For one thing, county registrars who have been anticipating a November recall say they won’t be ready to hold an election until mid-September at the earliest. They are urging Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, who has some flexibility in scheduling the date of the election, to ensure they have enough time to prepare.

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For another, rewriting the rules mid-course in a rushed and undemocratic process (the bill was introduced June 11 and could be passed as soon as this week) just to serve a political goal — in this case, helping the governor avoid removal — is wrong.

Election laws should be altered only to advance democracy, not to protect a single elected official. It’s especially galling because the provisions Democrats are seeking to waive in order to speed up Newsom’s recall election were pushed by them four years ago to slow down another Democrat’s recall election.

At the time, Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) was targeted for removal by Republicans because of his support for a gas tax hike. That was a pretext, though, as Newman was one of 81 legislators to vote for the tax. More likely, they were aiming at the Democrats’ supermajority status in the Legislature.

It was a nakedly self-serving recall effort by the GOP, and Democrats responded in an equally nakedly self-serving way: trying to tilt the election by ramming through new requirements for recalls that added more than two months to the certification process. (Specifically, the law gave people who signed recall petitions a chance to withdraw their names and avert a recall, and it required the Legislature to do its own analysis of the cost of an election.) It was an obvious attempt to save Newman, but it didn’t work. He lost the seat, though he did win it back in the next regular election.

Democrats evidently believe now that stringing out the recall election is not in Newsom’s best interest. At the moment, the governor’s approval rating among likely voters is comfortably high, and the pandemic blues that drove some of the recall rage have lifted along with the stay-at-home restrictions. Things could get even better by November, of course, but they can also get much worse once fire season heats up and power companies start shutting off power to millions of people to avoid setting wildfires.

The state’s procedures for recalling elected officials may well need some updating, and it seems clear that the slow-walking measures enacted by the Legislature in 2017 weren’t such a great idea after all. But the time to make substantial changes is after the election and as part of the normal legislative session when proposals can have a proper vetting — informed by the perspective gained from another recall.

To be clear, we have no love for this recall. Its proponents have violated the spirit of the law by trying to oust the governor not because he’s proved himself corrupt or unqualified but because they disagree with his policies. Nevertheless, they have abided by the letter of the law. And Newsom’s supporters in the Legislature should do the same. If that means an extra month or two of waiting for a recall election that shouldn’t be happening, so be it.


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