California is the first state in more than eighty years to recall a sitting governor. Is this landmark event a fluke or part of a larger anti-incumbent strain? Would those states without a recall mechanism be wise to follow California's lead?
The Golden State's voter rebellion fits into a national nonpartisan pattern. Democratic governor Gray Davis was recalled a month after Alabama voters rejected a $1.2 billion tax hike crafted by their Republican governor. Recall movements are afoot in Nevada and Wisconsin against both Republican and Democratic lawmakers who either raised taxes or refused to support a property-tax freeze.
At present, eighteen states have recall laws: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, and Wisconsin. Political activists may attempt to add such provisions to more state constitutions as a means of reining in incumbents—in the same vein as the term-limit laws of a decade ago.
If recall does go national, it should reflect populist sentiment, not partisan desires. States should improve on the California model with the following reforms in mind:
More-Specific Grounds. California law says recall is appropriate as "the public good may require." Other states are more detailed. Montana limits its recall grounds to physical or mental lack of fitness, incompetence, violation of the oath of office, or failure to perform duties prescribed by law.
Quicker Process. In California, opponents have 160 days to collect recall petition signatures. Nevada allows only sixty days, which seems more sensible, as a quicker timeline makes for less of a distraction to lawmakers.
Higher Threshold. California law requires signatures from only 12 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the last gubernatorial election. Most recall states have a threshold of 25 percent (in Kansas, it's 40 percent). Given the sophistication of professional signature gatherers, a threshold higher than California's is appropriate.
Limited Ballot. California law requires a $3,500 deposit for gubernatorial replacement candidates. Not surprisingly, 135 candidates cluttered the ballot. In Nevada, replacement candidates have to collect the same number of signatures (128,000) as those required to force a recall vote. This safeguard weeds out nonserious candidates and instills public confidence in the process.
Minimize Politics. Critics said that California's recall was a partisan ploy by Republicans to reverse the results of the last election. New Jersey law avoids this by putting only the governor's name on the ballot—no replacement candidates—with the job going to the state Senate leader should the incumbent lose. One wonders what effect this would have had on California's outcome, had the only alternative to the Democratic governor been a fellow Democrat.
Despite its flaws, California's recall was a resounding success. Voter turnout increased, as did the media's interest. In this regard, the recall had a therapeutic effect on a dispirited California electorate. Other states may be as fortunate if they experiment with direct democracy—but only if they improve on what California has started.