Following The Perfect Storm: Recall Reform?

Following The Perfect Storm: Recall Reform?


Jay B. Gaskill

The California recall is the natural, predictable response of voters trapped in a one party state. Its outcome should have not been a surprise. The Republican Party has atrophied as a significant influence in shaping policy, and the Democratic Party is hostage to ideologues out of touch with the electorate. The initiative process has given the people power to overrule their political handlers. Without meaningful competition, any ruling party inevitably degenerates. Inbreeding is bad for species and political party alike. The recall process, however flawed, will be necessary as long as voters are trapped in a one party state. And I say this as a long time registered Democrat.

In coming months, we may now hear calls for “reform.” Among the issues:

No specific rationale for the recall. Sorry, the reasons for a recall will never be effectively and fairly controlled except by the voters themselves. Any conceivable mechanism – a commission, the courts – and any definition of reasons – malfeasance in office, etc. – would be unwieldy, unworkable, and ultimately anti-democratic.

The overlong ballot. Of course there are too many candidates. But the task of weeding them out is daunting. Who – especially in California – could ever trust some agency, committee or official tasked to do that dirty work?

The “I quit—The recall is cancelled ploy.” Under current California law, there lurks the possibility of a governor’s sudden resignation. In this scenario, the Lieutenant Governor succeeds the incumbent governor and the election is cancelled.

So here are four key elements that should be in contained in any reform:

Preserve the realistic possibility of recall. In other words, don’t modify the signature requirements. Recall is an absolutely necessary safety valve, especially during times when the opposition party is weak and out of power. The current recall was the “perfect storm” of politics, the not-soon-to-be repeated combination of forces. We don’t need to do anything to weaken voter access in order to ensure that recall is a rare event.

Separate the recall ballot and the replacement election. If the recall succeeds, the Lieutenant Governor automatically becomes the governor and a special election for governor is set for the earliest practicable time.

Disqualify both the Governor the Lieutenant Governor from running in the post-recall election. This requirement honors the voters’ decision to recall a specific governor and allows the Lieutenant Governor to serve during the post-recall election without being given an undue advantage. It mitigates the “You, too, Brutus?” problem in which a non-loyal Lieutenant Governor is actually behind the recall.

Maintain the replacement election in the event the governor resigns after the recall has qualified form the ballot. Voters will not tolerate being cheated.

These modest reforms will permit the major parties to field candidates for governor, limit game playing to a minimum, and trust the voters to do the right thing. And that’s the best that can reasonably be done. We should all take comfort in Winston Churchill’s observation about democracy, that it’s a terrible system, just better than all the alternatives.

Copyright © 2003 by Jay B. Gaskill. For permission to print, copy or distribute, contact the author by email:

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