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Reform California’s Recall Process with this One Simple Trick

Contemporary illustration of robber baron from late 19th century.

Back in the late 19th century, when robber barons owned state and local governments and legislatures lock, stock and barrel, the need for direct democracy measures to throw the corrupt bums out every now and then became readily apparent to the voting public.

Thus the Progressive Era passed down to future generations the three main instruments in direct democracy’s toolbox: initiatives, referenda and recall elections.

The thing about direct democracy measures like recall elections is that nowadays, 100 years on, they don’t necessarily seem all that democratic. Anyone with a grievance, a hashtag and access to abundant funding can take out a public official, for any reason at all or no reason whatsoever.

Consider the recall of District 2 Supervisor Leonard Moty on Feb. 1. The results haven’t been certified, but Moty, a former Redding Police Chief with 31 years on the force and 14 years on the board of supervisors will be replaced by Happy Valley school board head Tim Garman, a relative political novice.

For the three organizations promoting the recall — Recall Shasta, the Shasta General Purpose Committee and the Red, White and Blueprint propaganda production company — Moty stood as a proxy for Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s COVID-19 mandates. The recallers never proved any actual corruption, malfeasance or betrayal of public trust on Moty’s behalf, nor did they attempt to do so.

They didn’t have to. They just made stuff up. Although a handful of states require proven criminal malfeasance in order to recall public officials, California isn’t one of them.

The recallers accomplished their mission thanks to the dual nature of recall elections—they are treated as both candidate contest and ballot initiative—and this dual nature’s effect on campaign contribution limits.

Individual campaign donations to candidates are limited to $4,900. Connecticut son-of-a-billionaire Reverge Anselmo’s $100,000 donation to Dist. 4 Supervisor Patrick Jones’ 2020 campaign was made just before the limits changed.

But donations to ballot initiatives are unlimited. That enabled Anselmo to donate $450,000 to the Shasta General Purpose Committee and as Steve Bannon says they flooded the advertising zone with shit and it paid off. Although the recall rules permit the targeted candidate to raise unlimited funds as well, Moty’s pockets simply weren’t deep enough. The SGPC outspent the Moty campaign 6 to 1, the bulk of the funding coming from outside the county.

All that’s bad enough. Then there’s the California recall’s convoluted calculus, where the candidate with the most votes doesn’t necessarily win the contest.

Only about 9000 of District 2’s 21,664 registered voters participated in Part A of the recall ballot; a paltry turnout rate of just 41 percent.

According to the Shasta County Elections office, more than 80 percent of the Shasta County electorate turned out for the presidential elections in 2016 and 2020, and 70 percent turned out for the midterm general election in 2018.

Some 4990 District 2 voters — 56 percent — elected to recall Moty, while 3935 (44 percent) chose not to recall the 3-term supervisor. Once the results are certified, Moty will have lost the recall and the seat he’s held since 2009, even though he earned nearly double the votes as the nearest replacement candidate, Tim Garman, who gained 2375 votes (38 percent).

It should be noted that Garman’s vote total comes from a smaller slice of pie than Moty’s. Combined, the four replacement candidates on Part B of the ballot received 6240 votes. That’s 2800 votes less than the 9000 people who voted on Part A, a voter drop-off rate of one-third.

Joshua Spivak, a Senior Fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and an expert on recall elections, cites this high rate of drop-off as reason why running a “safety candidate” on Part B of the ballot in case the targeted candidate is recalled rarely works.

“There is usually a drop-off in vote between the recall and the replacement race and that drop off is all on the ‘no’ side,” Spivak told A News Café. “While there is a feeling that a safety candidate can ‘sneak in’ in a multi-candidate race, the likelihood is that the pro-recall forces could have coalesced around a single replacement.”

In other words, either Garman or Ball would have pulled ahead. Thus far, the as-yet uncertified votes look to be in Garman’s favor.

In Moty’s three previous runs for the Dist. 2 seat, he gained more than 50 percent in the primary election, negating any need for a runoff in the general election. In the 2020 primary, 10,188 District 2 voters turned out. (Turnout for Shasta County districts in general elections averages 15,000).

Moty won the 2020 primary with 5188 votes (51 percent) compared to challengers Dale Ball’s 3190 votes (32 percent) and Susan Ray Pearce’s 1740 votes (17 percent). Ball finished second among the replacement candidates on Feb. 1, earning 2220 votes (36 percent).

Thanks to the California recall’s convoluted calculus, Moty will be removed from office even though he earned more votes than his challengers in both the 2020 primary election and in last week’s recall. More people voted for Moty in 2020, 5188, than voted to recall him in 2022, 4990.

But what can you say?

Those are the recall rules.

Opportunistic recalls are ripe for reform

State Sen. Josh Newman (D, D-29) won in 2016, was recalled in 2018, and reclaimed his seat in 2020.

The seemingly easy pickings offered by recall elections have become increasingly popular with California’s right-wing Republicans, state Sen. Josh Newman (D, D-29) wrote in Cal Matters last year.

“Recall campaigns,” Newman wrote, “present an ideal opportunity for a rump party with unpopular ideas to excite volunteers, exploit donors of all sizes and hire professional signature gatherers to generate an off-cycle, low-turnout electoral win.”

Newman should know. In 2016, he won Dist. 25, a formerly Republican enclave comprised of parts of Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernadino Counties, giving the Democratic Party a 2/3 supermajority in the state senate. That didn’t sit well with the Republican Party, which clawed back the seat in 2018 via the recall process.

The recall effort focused on Newman’s vote, along with 27 Democrats and 1 Republican, in favor of SB-1, which raised taxes on gasoline and diesel to pay for statewide infrastructure improvements. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association donated $140,000 to the recall campaign; the state Republican Party kicked in $2 million.

“They were leveraging an opportunity,” Newman said during a recent Zoom interview. “I give them some credit for that.”

Newman, who received $1 million from the state Democratic Party to defend his seat, was removed from office after 58 percent voted yes in the recall election.

Republican Ling Ling Chang, whom Newman defeated in 2016, retook the seat, even though Chang had 16,000 fewer votes, 50,215 votes verses the 66,197 voters who favored keeping Newman in office. The Democratic supermajority in the state Senate was temporarily thwarted.

Just as Newman’s recall wasn’t really about his single vote on the gas tax, Dist. 2 Superviosr Leonard Moty’s recall wasn’t about COVID-19 protocols. Shasta County District 4 Supervisor Patrick Jones, leader of the recall movement, openly stated he was seeking to establish a far-right 3-2 majority on the board of supervisors. He may have succeeded, with Anselmo’s financial help.

“Your Connecticut billionaire is not that different than in my case,” Newman said. “A Republican coalition saw in my recall effort the chance to break up a supermajority. I’ll go to my grave thinking it wasn’t about me. I voted the same as 27 other Democrats and one Republican. Why was it me? It was because it was opportunistic.”

“This is the problem with the internet-flattened world,” Newman said. “If it works in Montana, if it works in Colorado, it probably works in California. Colorado is a good example, actually. They have a very similar recall process to us. The people applied the same model [in 2013], let’s go get ‘em! Did you know you only need 40 signatures to start it? Let’s go to it!”

“And surprise, there’s a dude in Connecticut who loves this stuff!” he said. “For him $400,000, $450,000, is like you and I buying a plane ticket. The same thing is true with other kinds of initiatives.”

Connecticut son-of-a-billionaire Reverge Anselmo is attempting to buy the Shasta County Board of Supervisors.

For Newman, losing the recall was a bitter disappointment, but he saw one datapoint in his favor: More people had voted for him alone in the 2016 general election, 160,230, than had voted in the 2018 recall election, 148,545. He ran for the seat again in 2020, narrowly defeating Chang.

Since returning to office, Newman has spent part of his time writing recall reform bills, knowing full well that recall proponents will accuse him, and by extension all Democrats, of rigging the system to benefit themselves. Newman insists that’s not the case.

“When we talk about things like explicitly articulating the standards for recalls, or even changing the thresholds, you’ll be subject to this accusation that the politicians are trying to rig the system to make it harder to get rid of us,” Newman said.

“I’ve got no problem with the recall,” he insisted. “What I have a problem with is the abuse or the misuse of the recall process.”

Newman introduced two recall-related bills during the last legislative session, SB-660 and SB-663. The former bill would have prohibited the practice of paying signature gatherers based on the number of signatures gathered instead of by the hour.

Such “bounties” can encourage signature gatherers to cut corners in order to collect as many signatures as possible. In Newman’s case, some prospective signers were told the petition pertained to repealing the gas tax, not recalling Newman.

“What we found later on in the opposition effort is once it had qualified, a very large number of people had no idea they’d signed on to that effort, because they simply signed a clipboard that had been presented to them somewhere,” Newman said.

While the bill passed both houses, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it, saying he didn’t want to restrict the public’s access to direct democracy measures. The veto surprised Newman because the governor himself had just been subjected to similar signature-gathering efforts. SB-660 would have also applied to signature gathering for initiatives and referenda.

“One can make an argument that for initiatives and referenda the implications are more severe,” Newman said. “Anyone with a little bit of money, as in your Connecticut billionaire, can basically dictate terms to the Legislature at this point.”

“I think it’s pretty obvious that paid signature gathering has a deleterious effect on the process,” Newman said.

The recall campaign against Gov. Gavin Newsom was the catalyst for Dist. 2 Supervisor Leonard Moty’s recall.

Newman’s second recall bill last session, SB-663, was more controversial. It would have temporarily unmasked the identity of recall petition signers to permit the targeted candidate to identify his or her accusers. Critics said the bill would intimidate petition signers if passed.

“What’s always ironic is the same people who will say that’s terrible you’re violating my 1st Amendment rights, they’re on Facebook, they’re on Instagram, in their own name, telling people how important this is,” Newman said. “I still disagree with the notion that the signing of a petition is somehow a secret act. It’s as public and as participatory as anything else we do in politics.”

“If you think of a recall as a trial by ballot, the person who is subject of the recall should have recourse, should have access in fashion to communicate with people who have signed a petition. In many cases the information has been insufficient, or they have been misled to sign.”

Newman dropped the bill because it became impossible to have meaningful debate as the attempt to recall Gov. Newsom ground on.

This legislative session, Newman has crafted a state constitutional amendment, CSA-6, that would eliminate Part B, the replacement candidates, from the recall ballot. In the event of a state-level official’s recall, the governor would be replaced by the Lt. Governor, constitutional officers would be appointed by the governor and special elections would be held to replace recalled state legislators

“It is true I think that the framers of the recall lived in a different moment,” Newman said. “For them it was about integrity, and it was about justice. What I’ve concluded is the reason there’s a second question on the ballot today is because in 1911 the predicate was that everybody was crooked. So, if you recalled the governor, the person who replaced the governor would be just as crooked, because the railroads owned the Legislature. You’d be replacing like with like.

“Now, we have lots of problems today, but that’s not the problem, right? So, the presence of that second question [Part B of the recall ballot] provides the incentive for instigating a recall. You can get through a recall election what you couldn’t get through a normal election.”

Case in point: It’s highly unlikely that the winning replacement candidate in Shasta County’s recently concluded Dist. 2 recall election, the relatively unknown Tim Garman, could defeat outgoing Supervisor Leonard Moty in a general election. If Garman votes in lockstep with Jones, then Jones and Anselmo have achieved the right-wing 3-2 majority they were seeking through the recall process.

Mission accomplished.

“I’m sympathetic to your broader argument, which is there’s something really flawed where an individual, whether they live in the state or not, can pony up unlimited funds,” Newman said. “Conversely the target of a recall can raise unlimited funds. I think that the same limitations that apply to candidate elections should probably apply here. It distorts things. It gives people with a vested interest a different amount of leverage than they otherwise might have.”

It might not take a constitutional amendment to reform it, Newman speculated. Recall elections could just be redefined as not being initiatives with a bill.

Newman’s proposed state constitutional amendment applies to statewide office holders. He admitted extending it to local recall elections presents difficulties. Holding a separate special election after the recall appears to be the only option for counties, cities and school boards, in the amendment’s current state.

“I think you have to look at local and state level stuff differently,” Newman said. “If you have a board of supervisors and there’s five members, you probably can’t leave one vacant for too long. You also shouldn’t leave it up to the four to replace a recalled member because that would play into the politics.”

In order to keep CSA-6 simple and increase its chance of passage, the amendment doesn’t include any measures beside eliminating Plan B. During the last session, Newman drew up legislation designed to increase the percentage of signatures required to qualify for the ballot in statewide recall elections from 12 percent to 20 percent.

Since then, he’s hit on what he thinks is a better idea to make statewide and local recall elections more fair to targets: increasing the number of signatures required to circulate a petition and start the recall in the first place.

“I’ll make an argument that the threshold for qualifying [for the ballot] is … less important than the threshold for starting a recall effort,” Newman said.You only need a couple dozen signatures to start a recall effort against a schoolboard member or a local elected official. It’s the beginning of that process that has as much of a damaging political impact, more of a kind of intimidation factor than the actual achievement of the threshold.”

In Shasta County, the recall movement had to submit 20 valid signatures for each of the three county supervisors it originally targeted.

“At the local level, it’s probably more corrosive in some ways, what’s going on, at city councils and especially school boards,” Newman said. “The number [required to start a recall] should be a deliberately rigorous number.

“You want to recall me from the school board? Let’s say it takes 7000 votes to recall me. Make the threshold for starting that process 30 percent. Get 2100 people, don’t get 20. All of us know 20 people who will agree with us, especially on social media these days.”

Elissa McEuen and her bullhorn; Lani Bangay and his exercise ball.

Newman is worried that California’s recall process, created by progressive idealists more than a century ago, lends itself well to the angry, regressive mob of right-wing Trump supporters and antivaxxers who’ve been storming school board, city council and county supervisor meetings across the country since the beginning of the pandemic.

“There’s this real and visceral anger that people feel about politics today,” Newman said. “They feel obviously that their voices are not heard, that there’s something about the system that mitigates against their perception of the right outcome. Because of that, they’re inclined to find other avenues.”

Other avenues such as California’s recall laws.

“The thing about people who get angry, they get really well informed,” Newman said. “And not just about the thing they’re mad about but about tactics, the tactical opportunity. If all of these people had been this involved in making the schools better and rationalizing our COVID policy, we wouldn’t have to have this fight in the first place.”

Unfortunately, they didn’t become involved until a pandemic came along and threatened their self-proclaimed medical freedoms. COVID-19 was fatally politicized by April 2020, the result has been 900,00 American COVID-19 deaths, including more than 500 in Shasta County.

“Once you get the politics going, it doesn’t matter,” Newman said. “This is my observation. I don’t know the answer, but there’s this kind of asymmetric quality, angry people, motivated people bring all that energy to a process where the average voter does not.”

“Herein lies their advantage. Part of what we have to think about—there’s no easy answer—we have to reengage the public in ways where they realize your vote matters, your failure to vote matters a ton.”

It certainly matters a ton to Leonard Moty, who contacted me as I was finishing this story, moments before leaving for one of his last commitments as a county supervisor.

“It’s way too general of a process,” Moty said about the recall. “I think there should be some more specific thresholds here.”

He likes Newman’s ideas of raising the threshold percentage for the number of signatures required to initiate the recall and qualify the measure for the ballot.

“It should be more than 20 signatures,” Moty said, referring to the threshold for starting a recall. If the percentage of signatures required to place the recall on the ballot in Dist. 2 was increased from 20 percent to 25 percent, as Newman as suggested, the recall would have failed to qualify.

“Unless there’s a criminal act, they should only do this during the general election cycle,” Moty said.

According to Newman, in the larger conversation about gubernatorial recalls, there’s been a demand for a more explicit standard for what qualifies as a recallable offense.

“It shouldn’t be completely subjective,” Newman said. “It certainly shouldn’t be overtly political.”

Moty agreed with Newman that anger feeds off the recall process.

“When people are angry, that fires them up,” Moty said. “Meanwhile the rest of the voters are just not interested.”

Moty is disappointed that the Fair Political Practices Commission, which is currently investigating Recall Shasta, the Shasta General Purpose Committee and the Red, White and Blueprint for alleged campaign finance violations, has so far not announced any findings.

“To come up with something after the fact doesn’t do any good,” Moty said.

Asked if he was worried about a 3-2 board of supervisors majority led by Jones, Moty said, “I’m concerned he’s going to waste a lot of time proposing silly resolutions and doing nothing. I’m worried about how they react to turning down new funding. The pressure will be on Garman; we’ll see if he fades.”

Recalls: ‘The weapon of the weak’

Recall expert Joshua Spivak.

Joshua Spivak, the recall expert, cautioned against assuming the worst about the recall results.

“Winning a recall may have much less of an impact than one may think longer term,” he told A News Café.

“It is really a weapon of the weak. If you look at many of the recent state recalls, you will see that the ouster was a temporary setback for the losing side. For example, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived the recall in June 2012; Barack Obama wins Wisconsin in November. Gray Davis is ousted in 2003, the Democrats continue their successful march in 2004 and beyond.”

Maybe things will work out. Maybe they won’t. When Moty was asked if he would consider running for his former Dist. 2 seat again in 2024, he waxed philosophical.

“People don’t care about the trash being picked up, until they don’t pick up the trash,” he said.

If things in District 2 go to hell in a handbasket with the new Jonestown majority, and the people ask him to come back, he’s playing the Sean Connery card.

Never say never.

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R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide is an award-winning journalist who has covered news, politics, music, arts and culture in Northern California for more than 30 years. His work has appeared in the Tenderloin Times, Sacramento News & Review, Reno News & Review, Chico News & Review, North Bay Bohemian, San Jose Metro, SF Bay Guardian, SF Weekly, Alternet, Boston Phoenix, Creative Loafing and Counterpunch, among many other publications. His honors include winning the California Newspaper Publishers Association’s Freedom of Information Act and best columnist awards as well as best commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists, California chapter. Mr. Scheide welcomes your comments and story tips. Contact him at RVScheide@anewscafe.com..

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