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Historically Speaking: California Recall

By Will Bellaimey:

Here in California, we are getting ready to vote in a recall election after the Republicans got enough signatures to get it on the ballot. A couple of months ago it didn’t seem like a big deal and just more of an annoyance for Gavin Newsom that, in the end, he would definitely end up winning. However, polling came out in recent weeks that suggests that it's actually a very close race and that the chances that Gavin Newsom could be removed from office and replaced by a relatively unknown conservative talk-radio host are fairly high. I still think that the most likely outcome is that he pulls it off, but there are a couple dynamics at work here that might be interesting to look at.

Gov. Gavin Newsom - Photo: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0

First of all, for people who don't know, the election is going to take place on September 14th, and the ballot will have two questions. The first question is: Would you like to see governor Gavin Newsom removed from office? Yes or no? There's no, “maybe” on the ballot. The second question asks: Regardless of how you voted on the first question, if Governor Newsom is removed, who would you like to see put into place now?

Historically speaking, recall is part of a series of progressive reforms that came about in the early 20th century as a way to try to give voters more say over what was happening. Progressives were often concerned with political machines, particularly within state and local governments, and wanted to have ways to get more direct citizen input.

Now, I’m a history teacher, and so often in history classes, a student will learn about initiatives, referendums, and recalls, all aimed at creating a more direct democracy. Referendums have ultimately, for the most part, been a failure to create a better democracy. Recalls have a similar result. It's an opportunity to remove a governor partway through, but it's clearly just another form of machine politics in the sense that if the Republican Party is able to get out enough signatures to take this guy out of office, then they can force an election, which the Democrats did with Scott Walker in Wisconsin and didn't succeed. So it ends up being very expensive and doesn't follow the dynamics of a normal election because it often doesn't happen on the actual election day. So, the question with a recall is: who's going to turn up on a random day when there's no other things on the ballot to vote for? And, if it's not a representative sample of the population, then weird things can happen.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger - Photo: Dale Frost of the Port of San Diego, CC BY 2.0

I actually think the Schwarzenegger election, in some ways, got so much media attention that it followed a more normal pattern, and I think there's an argument to be said that Arnold Schwarzenegger (being a moderate Republican who was also a massive celebrity at a time when people were ready to try anything different in California) might've won in a regular election too. Gray Davis was pretty unpopular at the time and was a governor in a state that was then not yet a total lock for Democrats, not running against a particularly notable candidate, being challenged basically by anger at one-party rule in California.

So, who’s interested in that and is going to show up to vote this time? Conservatives, of course.

So, the thing that happened over the last few weeks that made people realize that this might be a closer race is not necessarily that a bunch of people changed their minds about Gavin Newsom but that they started paying attention to who's actually going to show up to vote, because even if Democrats outnumber Republicans four to one, if twice as many Republicans as Democrats show up to vote, now we're dead even.

As a strategy, Newsom—along with the help of Nancy Pelosi and some other powerful Democrats in the state—kept any prominent Democrat from putting their name on the ballot, and I think it makes some sense strategically. That means no one is sitting around talking about if would it be better to have Gavin Newsom or would we like Xavier Becerra to be governor. No, the discussion is very direct: Do you want Newsom or do you want a Trump-supporting Republican? That's a really good frame in California to win.

There are a few people who consider themselves Democrats on the ballot, but they're YouTube stars, not reputable politicians. I think there's an argument to be made that they should have let maybe some not-very-exciting person be the backstop in case it goes that way, but right now, if polling holds and a Republican turnout is high and Democratic turnout is low, the governor could very well be removed.

The most likely person to replace Newsom would be a conservative talk-radio host named Larry Elder, an African-American conservative who has no experience in government. He’s a Trump-supporting guy with a lot of name recognition within the conservative community. And I think it's interesting because talk radio is sort of the original Fox News in terms of the shaping thinking on the right—I think it actually makes sense for talk-radio hosts to become politicians because they're the people who talk about politics all the time to people. However, that guy would have no chance in a normal election to become the governor of California.

So what would it matter if Newsom is removed? This is sort of an interesting chance to talk about what governors actually do.

The governor's main job is to be the face of the state and to manage the bureaucracy that runs all of the laws that are passed by the state legislature. Certainly having Larry Elder or some other Republican governor of California would be a huge symbolic change and would make people feel very differently about California. But in terms of the actual work of being governor, he could veto all legislation coming out of the assembly, but there's a super majority in both. So you could probably override that veto, that slows things down a lot.

Which brings us to executive orders, which have been so important. And why is Gavin Newsom much more of a household name in our minds right now than he was two years ago? Well, mostly because when COVID hit, he made a lot of the decisions himself or with his staff that had to be enacted really quickly. You could watch him at a press conference every day at noon. That combines his symbolic and executive role, and both those things would really change if it was someone else in that job.

I don't think anybody knows what's going to happen with the coronavirus next, and what kinds of public health measures would need to be taken. We saw with Trump that if the person at the top decides to just kind of not enforce anything, it ends up falling to state and local government. And if we had a governor who decided to not put a mask mandate or enact lockdowns if that seemed necessary, it would fall to cities and counties. So, Los Angeles laws would probably look pretty similar under governor Larry Elder or anybody else as they would under Governor Newsom. However, in some other counties, like right wing–leaning counties in the north, you might see some major differences.

There are a lot of interesting Federalism issues going on with COVID right now because we now have a federal government that is at least trying to enforce some rules. The limits of federal power is a classic subject to talk about in a government class—like interstate commerce. That's something that Congress clearly has power over and, by extension, the executive often has power. So that's why we can all be forced to wear masks on planes: because those are between states. But if it comes to telling the local Seven Eleven to make people wear masks, there's not an obvious reason why the federal government has the power to do that. That is something that would more likely fall to state and local regulation.

There's sort of a miniature version of that in California, where there are things that the governor can do, but there are also a lot of things that are decided by local officials. The 2024 election will happen under whoever's the winner of this California recall. There could be a lot of chaos surrounding that election. Maybe not as much in California as in some other places, but it might matter who's in charge at that point—the electors and the national guard, etc.

So, if what I'm describing sounds scary, definitely get registered and send in your ballot. And if the media environment changes and starts talking about this more, I think that's the most likely thing to get people like you and me who maybe weren't paying that much attention to the recall to be like, oh yeah, I need to show up to vote. The ballots will be mailed out, so you can vote by mail.

As always . . . please vote!


Will Bellaimey teaches U.S. Government and Politics at Flintridge Prep School outside Los Angeles where he is also the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Geography, which is staffed entirely by seventh graders. His podcast, All the Presidents, Man, is available here.

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