Research | Spring 2022 Issue

To Reform the Reforms

California pioneered direct democracy. Has it run its course?

By Kat Schuster

JOHN RANDOLPH HAYNES, the pioneering socialist physician and political reformer, believed that voters were their own best defenders. “The remedy for the evils of democracy,” he famously proclaimed, “is more democracy.”

Gov. Hiram Johnson took up that call and gave Californians the trio of reforms — the referendum, initiative and recall — that have formed the basis for this state’s version of direct democracy since they were enacted, by voters of course, in 1911. Now, just over a century later, some are questioning whether those reforms have outlived their usefulness and whether the recall in particular is in need of overhaul. Is it time to reform the reforms?

The impetus for this latest call to reform grows out of the unsuccessful effort to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom from office in 2021. Supporters of the Newsom recall collected the signatures necessary to force a vote, only to fall woefully short of removing him — but not before it cost taxpayers $200 million and overshadowed California politics for more than a year. If anything, it left Newsom even stronger politically.

“I think, ultimately, it’s really fair to say that this recall was a huge waste of time and money during a global pandemic that personally affected the livelihoods of so many Californians,” said Michael Rios, an elections expert at UCLA’s Latino Policy and Politics Department.

Rios’ opinion is echoed by 78% of likely voters who participated in a survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California in February that said last year’s recall was a “waste of money.” But those same respondents were unwilling to ditch the idea altogether: Even as large majorities favored changing the structure of the recall, 86% said they believed some form of recall was necessary.

“The people really want the process,” said Mark Baldassare, who has directed the PPIC Statewide Survey since 1998. “But we saw in our polling that Californians also said that changes were needed.”

The attempt to recall Newsom

THE RECALL WAS AT THE CENTER of California’s attention in 2021, but the bigger influence on the state’s history has been the initiative. From limiting property taxes in 1978 to creating term limits for elected officials and longer prison sentences for criminal defendants, the process has spurred major policy changes in the state, in some cases touching off national movements as well.

And though other states have their versions of direct democracy, no other state except Oregon has used the process as much as California. The PPIC found that since 1912, 392 citizens’ initiatives have appeared on the California ballot.

Distrust in California’s lawmakers is the main driver for use of the referendum and the initiative, which helps explain why even though the process is expensive, distracting and sometimes cumbersome, voters are historically unwilling to give it up at the urging of the same politicians whom they are disinclined to believe.

That has not prevented tinkering with the mechanisms adopted in 1911. Voters have passed significant initiative reforms. In 1966, Proposition 1a lowered the number of signatures required for initiative statutes. And in 1974 Proposition 9 changed the initiative information required in ballot pamphlets.

Voters have supported reforms to “increase transparency, involve the Legislature and engage the public,” according to PPIC.

But even amid those reforms, the initiative and referendum, like the recall, have faced questions of whether they could be susceptible to overuse or abuse.

Zev Yaroslavsky, director of the Los Angeles Initiative at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said he recently completed a review of every ballot measure and initiative that has ever landed on the ballot. The results were telling. “It was fascinating because most of the time people get it right,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean they always get it right.”

In some cases, the popular will of the moment has confronted deeper trends in American life. Proposition 14 repealed the Rumford Fair Housing Act in 1964, removing a safeguard against racial discrimination in housing. In 2008, Proposition 8 passed to ban same-sex marriage.

“The courts backstopped these,” said Yaroslavsky, who held public office for decades as a member of the Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “They intervened when the voters clearly transgressed the U.S. Constitution.”

According to Yaroslavsky, the referendum, the initiative and the recall are vital to upholding democracy, but that doesn’t mean they are bulletproof. “They’re not perfect, and they certainly are candidates for change and for modification,” he said.

Ideas for reform

THE ATTEMPT TO RECALL NEWSOM left no one happy. Supporters fell short, while for Newsom, it was a distraction during months that the COVID crisis was bearing down. Looking back at the experience now, some believe a lasting effect of that 2021 battle was to expose the vulnerability of California’s recall process to political opportunism.

California is, of course, among the nation’s bluest states. Democrats represent about 47% of all voters; the next largest group is independents at 29% and Republicans make up about 24% of the electorate. That makes political calculations for Republicans extremely challenging.

“I think those numbers alone suggest that Republican leadership in California are aware that they likely cannot win a conventional gubernatorial election,” Rios said. “And so they attempted to use a recall mechanism in the state constitution to take control of that office.”

The recall is tempting because it imposes different rules than a conventional election. In a normal election, a Republican needs to defeat an opponent, usually a Democrat. But in a recall, a Republican could ascend to office merely by persuading half the voters to reject the incumbent and then sliding into office as the top voter-getter among the replacement candidates, potentially a fraction of the votes that the incumbent received. That’s an appealing alternative made possible by the relative ease of qualifying a recall for the ballot.

In February, the Little Hoover Commission — an independent government oversight agency — published a list of recommendations for updating the recall. Two ideas dominated: raising the signature threshold to qualify a recall and amending the process for selecting a successor in the event that a recall is successful.

Current state law requires organizers of a recall to gather signatures equal to 12% of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election in order to put the matter before voters. The Little Hoover Commission believes the state should adjust the signature requirement to 10% of registered voters.

“It’s a lower percentage because you’re talking about registered voters, but it’s actually a larger number,” said Ethan Rarick, executive director of the commission. “That change would serve as a protection against potential overuse of the recall.”

Rios agrees. “I do think that threshold needs to be much higher, because it isn’t representative of the population,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of questions about buying signatures and things that make it too big of a ploy to cost the state $200 million.”

But not everyone is sold. According to Yaroslavsky, turning that dial up would only make the process more susceptible to abuse. “It won’t stop special interests from qualifying recalls, initiatives or referenda,” he argued. “It will make it harder for legitimate grassroots people who don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to pay signature gatherers. It’ll take them out of the game, completely. They’re really not in the game because it’s so difficult now to do it.”

Beyond the signature threshold, which applies to referenda and initiatives as well, the recall includes a replacement mechanism, and that, too, has drawn critical fire in the wake of the Newsom effort.

On the ballot, voters were asked two questions: Should Newsom be recalled, and who should replace him? If a majority had voted to oust him, the candidate with the most votes on the second question would have taken Newsom’s seat, even if that candidate won fewer votes than the governor. In other words, 49% of voters might have supported Newsom, and he would have lost, while 20% — or even fewer — might have voted for one of the candidates to succeed him, and that person would have become governor.

“That’s just plain undemocratic,” Yaroslavsky said.

Responding to this widely shared criticism, the Little Hoover Commission proposed to eliminate the yes/no question entirely, and instead place the standing elected official among the other candidates on the ballot. Under that simpler system, the governor and his opponents would all run against one another, and whoever got the most votes would be the winner.

Another suggestion would be to allow voters to vote up or down on the incumbent, but if the recall were successful, to turn the office over to the lieutenant governor. That would end the incentive for potential successors to circulate petitions and win election with a sliver of the electorate, though it might introduce new tension into the relationship between governor and lieutenant governor.

In January, State Sen. Josh Newman (D-Fullerton) proposed constitutional amendment SCA 6, which would allow a recalled governor to be replaced with the lieutenant governor.

“Constitutional amendments are not everyday events, and I don’t favor big changes for small matters,” Newman said in a statement. “But recall in California has become a partisan circus in the Internet era and must be reformed to reflect today’s political challenges and to serve the public better.”

The long road of democracy

A CENTURY AFTER LAUNCHING direct democracy, Californians are still wrestling with the power they asserted for themselves in the fateful elections of 1911. It has been a bumpy path in the years since that election, and the results have been as profound as they have been mixed: the genesis of the property tax revolt, gyrations in criminal justice, advances and setbacks in civil rights.

Taking stock of that history today, historians, academics and politicians join with the larger public in viewing the status quo as imperfect but worthy of reform, not of abandonment. It’s there that the larger work remains, the perfecting of imperfect but useful devices, the unsteady but insistent demand for better systems of holding the powerful to account.

“I’m a believer that it shouldn’t be easy to qualify a recall or an initiative,” Yaroslavsky said, “but it shouldn’t be impossible either.”

Kat Schuster

Kat Schuster

Kat Schuster is a journalist based in Long Beach who covers California politics, public health and breaking news for Patch. She's covered communities throughout the central coast and Southland for dozens of newspapers since 2014.

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