Editorial: California’s recall process needs to be fixed to prevent a repeat fiasco

Radio talk show host and gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder
Radio talk show host and gubernatorial recall candidate Larry Elder greets supporters at the Warner Center Marriott in Woodland Hills on Aug. 10.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a system under which a majority of voters can recall their governor and pick a new one. That’s democracy, and as much as our friends and neighbors from other states scoff at California’s recall system and our other direct democracy features, the principle is sound and provides a valuable check against wayward elected leaders.

The problem with the particular mechanics of California’s gubernatorial recall process is that they make possible the very opposite of what was intended — a very undemocratic outcome that could undermine rather than reflect the will of the people. That fundamental problem requires serious examination and bipartisan deliberation followed by swift action, before we forget all about recall elections for another decade or two. Californians should have a chance to amend their Constitution to fix the problem with a measure on the November 2022 ballot.

A source of the problem is the combination of features in the current recall process: The yes/no vote, the vote for a challenger, and the lack of any runoff.

Voters decide whether to oust or retain the governor (and in this round a wide majority decided to retain Gov. Gavin Newsom), and on the same ballot they pick a challenger to replace him.


What was innovative a century ago is extremely dangerous during a time of intense political polarization — regardless of the California recall result.

But in the event a majority of Californians say yes to the recall (which is fine; again, democracy), the victorious challenger doesn’t need a majority in his or her field, but simply more than any other candidate, in order to become governor. There’s no runoff among the top two finishers, which means there’s no opportunity for most Californians to weigh in. So we could end up electing a governor with far fewer votes than the number the defeated incumbent got for retention.

This odd feature was noted during the successful 2003 recall campaign against Gov. Gray Davis. He lost the recall by nearly a million votes. Still, there were more than 4 million Californians who voted to retain him. If the top finisher among the 135 candidates vying to replace him had been, say, billboard model Angelyne, her 2,536 votes would have defeated his nearly 4 million votes. That’s most assuredly not democratic.

As it happens, top finisher Arnold Schwarzenegger got 4.2 million votes, so even though he ended up with less than 50% of the field of challengers, he had more votes than Davis, and this particular recall quirk was forgotten — until this year.

The prospect arose again: Would Larry Elder, for example, become governor by beating all the other challengers but still garnering fewer votes than those who said no to the recall?

This recall failed, but the problem could easily arise yet again. There are several possible fixes that have been floated by politicians and election experts, each with pluses and minuses.

Academics and activists alike say that improvements to the rules and reasons for a recall contest are long overdue. And polling indicates voters might be ready for changes too.

Should we add a runoff, as we do in regular elections? If the recall wins on the first ballot and no voter wins a majority, or wins more than the number of voters who said no to the recall, perhaps there should be a second election a few weeks or months later.

The problem there is that when Californians want their governor gone, they want it as soon as possible, without waiting for another election. It already takes 38 days for results to be tabulated and certified, so it’s that long before we even know for certain who the top two challengers are. Additional time for a runoff defeats the purpose of a recall, which is to allow voters to remove a governor under extraordinary circumstances, without waiting for the next regularly scheduled election. Besides, who runs the state in the meantime? The defeated governor, who plugs along despite his or her loss until voters pick a replacement?

How about a so-called instant runoff, in which voters say yes or no to the recall, pick a candidate to succeed the incumbent in case he or she is removed, and then a second-choice candidate? In a process already somewhat convoluted and confusing, though, that’s asking a lot of voters.

Perhaps the governor’s name should be listed among the challengers? But then it’s not a recall at all, but an extra midterm election.

There are many ideas, too, about limiting recall elections altogether — for example, by allowing them only in the case of wrongdoing by the governor or requiring more signatures to qualify, and to make it harder to qualify by increasing the number of signatures from registered voters.

The most promising reform, though, would be to allow voters to oust the governor but have the independently elected lieutenant governor fill out the remainder of the term, just as would happen in the event of the governor’s resignation or death. And if the lieutenant governor also is recalled, then the office would go to the secretary of state, and on down the line of California’s statewide elected constitutional officers.

The 110-year-old recall rules are showing their age and need updating. Most Californians agree.

That would severely limit any effort to put in power a candidate not embraced by a majority of voters, and probably discourage partisan-fueled recalls. That structural change may well be the best possible way to turn the recall process back to its original intent.

It’s a solution, by the way, that would work only in recalls of the governor. City council members, district attorneys and other officials have no elected understudies.

The next step may be up to the Legislature, which should convene a bipartisan commission to make recommendations. Or perhaps it falls to Newsom himself to call lawmakers, now on recess, into special session for that purpose.

Failing to quickly fix the structural problem will reintroduce chaos and diminish confidence when the next recall comes — whenever that may be.