The two most frequently asked questions when the issue of the California recall campaign comes up is: Why, and how could that happen? The other question is: Is a recall constitutional? After all, aren't candidates supposed to win office solely by a standard election? That means the voters decide the winner every two or four years. The candidates make TV and radio pitches, hold campaign rallies, give innumerable campaign speeches, garner funds, and endorsements, and do massive voter outreach through mailers, and social media. Most importantly, the candidates must get the backing of the Democratic or Republican parties.
A recall, then, seems to fly squarely in the face of the standard electoral process. What's worse, the California recall is quirky. That's putting it mildly. A recall candidate can win an office with a minority of the vote. In the 2003 recall election that ousted Gray Davis, Arnold Schwarzenegger got a minority of the state vote. It's possible for a recall candidate if voters say "no" to the incumbent to win the governorship with as little as ten percent of the vote. The recall winner is simply the one who gets the most votes. In a field loaded with dozens of candidates, that low ball percentage is more likely what the winner would get to climb into the governor's seat. So, someone filling the California governor's seat that eighty to ninety percent of California voters didn't vote for seems beyond preposterous. But, again, it's possible.
As for the constitutionality of the recall? Some legal scholars and advocates loudly protest that it's unconstitutional because it usurps the power of the electorate to decide an election through the standardized election process. However, the recall has been part of the state governing mechanism for far more than a century. To ensure that it stayed that way, it was written into the state constitution as Article 2, section 13: "Recall is the power of the electors to remove an elective officer." It's a simple, direct, but powerful statement that has withstood numerous legal challenges to dump it. This time around we heard the same squawks from some legal experts that the recall is illegal. However, the protests will remain just that protests. There will not be a change in the recall process.
How did this all happen? The recall petition in California and other states, along with its companions, the ballot initiative and referendum, came into being during the progressive era in the early 20th century. Voters were sick of the backroom wheeling and dealing, corruption, and bossism that was the way political candidates were chosen and parties were run. The recall, the referendum, and initiative were in a sense the exercise of "peoples' democracy'" It was a mechanism for voters to open up the political process to real competition and fairness.
As of 2021, only nineteen states and the District of Columbia permitted voters to remove an official. Even in the states where the recall is on the books, it is the rarest of rare times that it is used. Though there have been countless threats, efforts, and petitions circulated to recall state officials over the decades in these states, 117 in California for instance, nearly all have gone nowhere.
Though California Governor Gray Davis in 2003 became the first California governor to be recalled, even with him it was not the first try. His opponents tried first in 1999 to remove him, but they couldn't get the required number of ballot qualifying signatures. You'd have to go back a century to 1921 to find another governor recalled. That was North Dakota Governor Lynn J. Frazier. The issues that got Davis in hot water were a big electricity crisis, the perennial immigration wars, and his clamping down hard on guns.
The 2003 recall was a true freewheeling affair with over 150 would-be candidates jumping into the fray. It had to be one of the odd ball collection of eccentrics, cranks, egomaniacs, and want to be politicians, media and celebrityhood chasers, and fame seekers in anyone's history. It drew lots of laughter and cracks about kooky California from a chorus of political pundits. However, the show still went on, and the state got Arnie.
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