Why Are There So Many Recalls in California?

How a once-obscure political process went viral in the Golden State.

There’s a virus spreading throughout California. It began by infecting mostly Republicans, but it’s quickly taking hold among the general population. People are especially susceptible when they’re angry or scared, which could explain why social media seems to be one of the major vectors of infection. But there’s still a lot we don’t know about how this bug spreads, let alone its long-term effects.

The Golden State has recall fever, and it’s sucking all of the oxygen out of state and local politics. 

On Sept. 14, Californians will decide whether to recall Governor Gavin Newsom, and, if so, whether a talk radio host, a YouTuber, or a guy who’s been travelling the state with a live brown bear and a giant ball of trash, among 43 other candidates, should replace him. On the same day, voters in Sonoma County will cast ballots in a recall election of their district attorney, in a campaign bankrolled exclusively by the vindictive owner of an old-folks home. San Francisco is likely to vote on two more recalls in the coming months, one targeting District Attorney Chesa Boudin, and another against three members of the school board. Los Angeles has a budding recall movement of its own, with campaigns underway to recall District Attorney George Gascón, who previously served as DA of San Francisco, as well as three city council members. Across the state, approximately 70 recall campaigns have been launched this year. 

Much has been written about the rules governing these elections, including the relatively low signature counts needed to get a recall on the ballot — 10 percent of registered voters for local officials, and 12 percent of the previous election’s turnout for state officials — and the potentially unconstitutional structure of the gubernatorial recall election, where Newsom could win 49 percent of the vote and be replaced by someone who wins as little as 3 percent. Recalls are subject to looser campaign finance regulations than on-cycle elections, even though they tend to attract far lower turnout. And the elections themselves are expensive: the Newsom recall alone is expected to cost the state $276 million. 

But none of that explains why recalls have gone viral in recent months. While there’s a great deal of diversity among the supporters and opponents of various efforts across the state, political strategists and campaigners on both sides of local recalls point to a few baseline factors that seem to contribute to the recall-happy climate.

The pandemic, with its associated shutdowns of schools and businesses; a spike in certain types of crime; and an increase in visible homelessness all contributed to a general climate of fear and anger. Those sentiments were turbocharged by social media as well as traditional news outlets, where disturbing videos and embarrassing actions by elected officials made their way to the forefront of the political conversation. In a polarized environment, incumbent politicians’ enemies smelled blood, and were eager to channel that grassroots energy into expensive signature-gathering efforts to launch recall elections. Everybody remembers Arnold Schwarzenegger’s shocking recall victory in 2003, which proved that, just like in the movies, anything is possible in California politics. 

Recalling Recalls Past

This year’s recalls undoubtedly represent the largest crop of high-profile efforts in California history. But they are part of a growing interest in recalls that has been building for the past two or three decades, powered by technology, pop culture, and political polarization. 

For most of the 20th century, recalls were rare in California, and often took place under extraordinary circumstances. The most recent recall election in San Francisco came in 1983, when an extremist group known as the White Panthers launched a petition to recall Mayor Dianne Feinstein over her handgun ban. The fringe campaign only gained traction after Feinstein opposed a bill from Supervisor Harry Britt that would have legalized domestic partnerships for gay couples. The ensuing recall election turned out to be only a minor setback in the career of the now U.S. Senator: Feinstein won by 80 percent, paving the way for an easy reelection the next year.

As media and communications technologies have improved over the years, so have the odds of pulling off a recall campaign. There was a significant uptick in state-level recall campaigns and elections starting in the ’90s as email and websites became widely available, says Joshua Spivak, who runs a blog tracking recall elections nationwide and recently published a book called Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom. In California, there were no state-level recall elections between 1914 and 1994. Since then, there have been eight, including the upcoming Newsom recall. Between 2009 and 2020, 39 recall attempts of state officials were approved to collect signatures by the secretary of state, compared to 22 attempts between 1940 and 1979. 

A recall Newsom sign in Yorba Linda. (Photo: Matt Gush/ Shutterstock)

“Any given elected official on any given day is going to be making decisions or not making decisions that anger some people,” says Darry Sragow, a veteran Democratic political strategist who runs the California Target Book newsletter. “That’s always been true. But what technology enables those angry people to do is find each other…. People who have a bone to pick with an elected official can gather in one virtual place very quickly, and then they can begin to proselytize.” 

High-profile recalls seem to beget more recalls. The 2003 recall of Governor Gray Davis — only the second gubernatorial recall to reach the ballot in American history — significantly raised the profile of this political process. “You see Arnold Schwarzenegger winning and suddenly you’re aware of recalls,” Spivak says. In the ensuing years, “The Simpsons” did an episode on recalls, as did “Parks and Recreation.” The term had entered the cultural lexicon.

In more recent years, recalls have become part of the bread and butter of partisan politics in the 19 states where state officials can be recalled. “Republicans in the West, where they’ve been steadily losing ground, started discussing recalls constantly after the 2018 election,” Spivak says. “They actually had speeches about how they were gonna teach the Democrats how to spell ‘recall’ in Colorado.” Republicans also mounted recall efforts for governors and state officials in Nevada, Washington, Oregon, and California. “They all just flopped,” Spivak says. 

That was where the Newsom recall appeared to be headed until Nov. 17. That day was slated to be the signature-collecting deadline for the latest effort to recall Newsom, one of six that had been approved by the secretary of state since Newsom assumed office in 2019. Instead, a Sacramento Superior Court judge gave the campaign four more months to collect signatures, due to pandemic-related hardship. The very same day, a Los Angeles Fox affiliate published photos of Newsom dining at The French Laundry, a world-famous Napa Valley restaurant, just as the state was heading back into lockdown. In a matter of hours, the recall Newsom campaign was given the time, and the ammunition, to collect the 1,495,709 eligible voter signatures needed to get their initiative on the ballot. 

The Issues 

French Laundry-gate and COVID restrictions seem to have motivated enough people to sign the petition to bring the Newsom recall to ballot; and COVID shutdowns have also been a major force behind the school board recall attempts in San Francisco and elsewhere. But another set of issues is driving the gubernatorial recall campaign at this late stage, as well as the big-city district attorney recalls and many other recall efforts across the state. 

“I’m running because of crime, homelessness, the rising cost of living and the outrageous decisions made during COVID that shut down the state,” gubernatorial recall frontrunner and talk radio host Larry Elder recently told the New York Times

Those first two issues are “very emotional” for voters, Sragow says. “Crime and homelessness, while clearly problems on their face — there’s no question about that — are also manifestations that everything is out of control, and my elected officials aren’t doing enough to protect me.”  

Sragow, who has done hundreds of focus groups and polls over the course of his career, although none specifically focused on the recent crop of recalls, thinks the state’s burgeoning unhoused population has played an outsized role in fueling recalls — and not because voters are worried about the health of those unable to keep a roof over their heads.“When we talk about homelessness being consistently one of the most salient issues in California in the last few years, it’s not concern over the well-being of homeless people, it’s disgust, it’s fear.”

A recent CNN segment on the gubernatorial recall singled out homelessness as an issue that could lead Democrats — who outnumber Republicans two-to-one in the state — to vote to recall Newsom. “I’ve never seen an issue like this, so potent,” L.A.-based Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo told CNN. “It’s making progressive voters moderate.”

Governor Gavin Newsom picking up trash with Congresswoman Nanette Barragán in Long Beach. (Photo: Howard Freshman/ Shutterstock)

The salience of crime and homelessness — which often are conflated in voters’ minds — appear to be connected to their visibility on social and traditional media. “Technology means that everybody’s a reporter,” Sragow says. “You see crime you used to not get to see.” 

In San Francisco, videos of shoplifting, car break-ins, and other crimes frequently go viral on social media or are highlighted on local TV stations. Over the past year, some of these videos, including horrific acts of violence against elderly Asian Americans and a brazen shoplifting incident at the Walgreens on Gough Street, have become national news stories — and then fodder for gubernatorial candidates’ campaign ads. 

For the recall Boudin campaign, these incidents are proof the city has become more dangerous on the DA’s watch. “When people do not feel safe walking around their neighborhood… When you see elders, or other people, but particularly elders, under assault on our streets, these are issues that really impact real people’s lives, but the response from the District Attorney has been lacking,” says Andrea Shorter, who is leading the campaign to recall Boudin. After a separate effort failed in August, Shorter reports her campaign had collected 64,000 signatures as of Aug. 27, well above the 51,000 the campaign needs to collect by Oct. 25 to qualify for the ballot. 

Boudin and his supporters counter that the most sensational incidents have been amplified and intentionally woven into a partisan narrative about a lawless San Francisco — at a time when social media remains many people’s main tether to the outside world. “They are exploiting the fact that people are living their lives at home in front of computer screens and Nextdoor accounts and Twitter accounts to fearmonger, to exploit tragedy,” Boudin said of his opponents during a recent speech before the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club. 

San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. (Photo: Kevin N. Hume/ SF Examiner)

Crime is down overall since Boudin took office, although homicides and a few other categories of crime have gone up. A similar pattern exists statewide: homicides increased 31 percent between 2019 and 2020, but property crime is down significantly. It’s notoriously difficult to decipher the causes behind shifting crime patterns, and the unprecedented events of the past year and a half have made it even more so. 

“It’s hard to provide that contextual information when what people are seeing as they scroll their feed is a shocking video, and in some cases, really troubling and upsetting videos,” says Julie Edwards, a political consultant running a pro-Boudin committee. “Some of it is just wanting to let your neighbors know what you’re observing, but some of it is bad actors who are pursuing an agenda.”

Feeling (Un)Heard 

Newsom has been very deliberate in his messaging on the upcoming election, branding it as the “Republican recall” at every opportunity. But the alliterative turn of phrase is more than political spin. The same general pattern — of more conservative forces seeking to oust more liberal politicians — characterizes most of the recall efforts across the state, though they don’t always fall along strict party lines. 

In an email, S.F. Board of Education President Gabriela López drew a connection between the recall attempt against herself and her colleagues, and those against Newsom and Boudin. “I recognize these recall efforts are part of a larger issue,” she wrote. “[M]any powerful forces are attacking leaders of the left that fight for those with the least. And we are noticing a sweeping effort built on fear tactics given the rising anxiety we have developed throughout this pandemic.”

Board of Education Commissioners Gabriela López, Alison Collins, and Faauuga Moliga at their swearing in in 2019. (Photo: Ida Mojadad/ SF Examiner)

Still, branding recall efforts as Republican — or in San Francisco, “moderate” — power grabs glosses over politicians’ missteps and miscalculations that have clearly angered a significant number of their constituents. We may live in a hyper-polarized social media thunderdome, but beyond all the propaganda, California’s recall fever might reveal something interesting about what voters really want. 

“You have to look like you’re on the job — that is so critical,” Sragow says, when asked how  politicians can avoid giving fodder to their enemies. “You have to look like you’re paying attention, that you’re working hard to do the job you were elected to do.” Newsom didn’t look that way when he dined at The French Laundry. Neither did the Board of Education when they discussed renaming 44 schools while many parents were clamoring for them to resume in-person learning, nor did Board of Education Commissioner Alison Collins when she sued the city and her colleagues for a combined $87 million after being censured for controversial tweets. 

These episodes involving the school board are indicative of “misplaced priorities, a lack of understanding of where parents were at, and the real issues that parents were concerned about, primarily, opening of schools,” says political consultant Nicole Derse. 

Mounting a recall effort felt like the only way to get the school board to pay attention to his concerns as a parent, says Siva Raj, whose campaign is targeting the three commissioners legally eligible to be recalled: López, Collins, and Faauuga Moliga. “Traditional approaches of calling into meetings and protesting on the streets” weren’t working, Raj says. “When people whom we elect to serve our needs fail to listen to us consistently and fail to put our interests first, then we have the right to fire them.”

Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj, co-leaders of the school board recall campaign. (Photo: Kevin N. Hume/ SF Examiner)

Raj believes recalls are an especially important tool in overwhelmingly Democratic San Francisco to compensate for the lack of competition in many elections, and the party machinery that determines who has a realistic chance to win office. “California in general, and especially San Francisco, it’s a single-party system,” Raj says. “We don’t have a competitive democracy and therefore sometimes the only way you have of exerting your will upon a political class and a political process is through the recall effort.”

The school board recall campaign, which needs to hand in about 51,000 valid signatures per commissioner by Sept. 7, had collected over 70,000 signatures by Aug. 30 to recall Collins and López, and about 67,000 for Moliga. In addition to accountability for the district’s slow return to in-person learning, another issue for school board critics was the decision to end merit-based admissions at Lowell High School — a move that already has increased Black and Latino enrollment at the elite school. 

Tyranny of the Minority

Recalls are, in the most technical sense, a means of holding politicians accountable and forcing them to be more responsive to constituents’ desires. They’re a form of direct democracy that can get ordinary people more involved in politics. 

But in practice, recalls often are an underhanded way for a minority of voters to seek to oust duly elected politicians in the middle of their term, taking advantage of the fact that fewer voters pay attention to off-cycle special elections. Like citizen ballot initiatives — the most recent example being Uber- and Lyft-backed Prop. 22 — recalls also offer an opportunity for big money to exert political influence. The school board recall received $49,500 each from tech investors David Sacks and Arthur Rock. The Boudin recall campaign received $300,000 each from venture capitalist Steven Merrill and businessman William Oberndorf via a committee called Neighbors for A Better San Francisco that spent millions seeking to unseat Supervisor Dean Preston last year. And the recall campaign against Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch, who has pledged not to run for reelection in 2022, was financed by $1.7 million from developer Bill Gallaher. 

“If someone is willing to put enough money into paid signature gathering, you can get almost anything on the ballot,” says Edwards. “If you’re willing to spend in San Francisco maybe a million dollars, and in the state of California, maybe $10 million.” That’s quite a far cry from the original intent of recalls and citizen ballot initiatives, which were legalized as constitutional amendments in 1911 as part of a Progressive Era effort to check the power of railroad monopolies. 

These old laws are in force in a world where voters can instantly share information — accurate or not — and rapidly organize campaigns with unlimited donor dollars. Politicians, meanwhile, are today subject to unprecedented scrutiny, even as they respond to unprecedented events like COVID-19, and the effects of climate change. There will surely be talk about raising the threshold for the number of signatures needed to trigger recall elections, and changing the bizarre two-question gubernatorial recall election process. But those reforms won’t solve the problem of how to give the people a productive voice in policy making.

For Sragow, California’s recall fever highlights fundamental questions about governance. The world is changing too quickly, too visibly, for people to be content voting every four years and then checking out. “We really have to wrestle with how we will effectively govern ourselves with confidence in this new world,” Sragow says. “There are elements of our electoral system and our government that are going to have to shift to accommodate all the changes that our society is going through. It’s inevitable.”

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