Recall Election Reform: Forgetting that the talking points were only that | A Pragmatist's Take | Douglas Moran | Palo Alto Online |

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By Douglas Moran

Recall Election Reform: Forgetting that the talking points were only that

Uploaded: Sep 16, 2021

Campaign talking points that make no sense can take on a life of their own simply through repetition. Competent politicians interested in good government would know this and have a cooling-off period before proceeding. However, less than 24 hours after the polls closed, Marc Berman, the State Assemblymember for this district (^the 24th^) announced his legislative committee would be holding hearings on "reforming" the state law on recall elections. See Berman's press release "^Elections Chairs Call for Reform of Flawed Recall System^" (2021-09-15) and "^Lawmakers target reforms to California's recall process:: Leaders prepare to hold joint hearings to discuss changes to procedures^" (Gennady Sheyner, Palo Alto Online, 2021-09-15).

My hope is that nothing comes of this, because the only likely alternative is a "reform" that is worse than what we have. In case the hearings are not intended to only give the appearance of wanting to do something until interest fades, it's never too early to start chipping away at the "reformers" narrative.

The first clue is the use of "flawed" in the press release title and "broken system" in the second paragraph. Yet I don't see any mention of legitimate "flaws". This suggests that the "reforms" are driven by a different agenda.

The first argument (paragraph 2) is the presumption that, since the law is old, it is defective and unable to cope with "modern-day" situations ("age-ism").

Paragraph 4: On the need to "prevent political gamesmanship of the rules" but gives no examples. The only gamesmanship that I am aware of was by the Secretary of State -- a Democrat -- who established a very high standard for accepting signatures in contrast to a very loose -- almost non-existent -- standard for ballot signatures in the 2020 General Election. Result: 16-18% rejection rate for petition signatures, 0.1-0.2% for 2020 mail-in ballot signatures. In a generic election, the typical rejection rate is 1-5%.

Paragraph 5: "issues such as grounds for removal; ...". This would allow a legislative body or the courts to veto a recall as not meeting the grounds. Not that either of such groups would even think of being partisan ;-) Or they could render a "pocket veto" by delaying the decision until it was moot. In the two votes on impeachment of then-President Trump, numerous members of the House of Representatives made it clear that their votes weren't connected to the stated charges, but were purely political, that is, to their general feeling about Trump or to their political party loyalty. Why should California voters have less ability to remove an officeholder??

Paragraph 6: Berman quotes himself saying "... yesterday’s election highlighted the fundamentally undemocratic nature of California's existing recall process, ...". The voters decided that Newsom should not be recalled and that was the result. If you didn't know that Berman was a Democrat, you might conclude that despite the vote, Berman believes Newsom should have been recalled.
Usage note on "undemocratic": I am well-aware that, within the Democratic Party context, this is commonly used to mean "against the interests of the Democratic Party", far removed from its conventional meaning of being against democratic ideals and practice. So, yes, an election that the Democratic Party opposes can be "undemocratic" in their eyes.
However, I refuse to accede to this rhetorical tactic or let it go un-noted.

Paragraph 6 (more): "California law should not allow someone else to be recalled and replaced by a candidate who receives far fewer votes." This is disingenuous. In the recall election, there are two separate but related elections on the same ballot and they are treated as sequential elections. First a reality check: There have been two recall elections for the governor. In the first (^2003^), Gray Davis ("No" on recall) received 4.0M votes (44.6%) after having received 3.5M votes (47.3%) in the 2002 General Election. Arnold Schwarzenegger received 4.2M (48.6%) and replaced him. In the recent one, Gavin Newsom received the most votes and stayed in office. His high margin of victory resulted from vigorous campaigning in the last weeks: In mid-summer, multiple polls reported the election as virtually a toss-up.

One way to think about this is to pick hypothetical extreme cases. I use the "^Grand Poobah^" as an easy reference to a generic officeholder.
Case 1: The Grand Poobah was elected with 51% of the vote, but in the recall, he received 0% (= "Yes to recall" received 100%) with the winner of the election to replace him receiving 40% of those votes -- remember votes are split between many candidates. Assume that 9.3M votes were cast (same as the 2021 recall). That 11% difference is 1.0M votes. Would you call this "far few votes". Under this "reform", the Grand Poobah -- with no current public support -- would remain in office.
Case 2: The Grand Poobah was elected in a low turnout election, receiving 3M votes representing 51% of votes cast. The recall election has a heavy turnout of 9M votes, with only 2.5M voting to retain him (28%). The winning candidate to replace him receives 2.9M votes (32%). So what is the comparison? Number of votes or percentages? Votes for Grand Poobah in the previous General Election or the "No on recall" votes as a proxy in the recall election??
Recognize that the elections for some officials is not between the top-2 primary candidates, but can have many candidates with the winner(s) often receiving pluralities, not majorities.
Case 3: Let's extend the "principle" to the General Election. The Grand Poobah wins office 5.4M of 9M votes (60%). However, he loses his bid for re-election, getting 4.3M votes (48%), with his challenger receiving 4.7M votes (52%). A principle of not replacing an officeholder with someone who received far fewer votes compared to the officeholder's previous election voting results would mean that the Grand Poobah would retain his office despite not being re-elected.

Paragraph 9: Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon is quoted as saying "We came far too close to having a Governor elected by a tiny fraction of eligible voters." The top vote-getter among those hoping to replace Newsom was Larry Elder and he received 47% of the votes cast (incomplete count). In what world is that 47% "a tiny fraction"??
Note: Rendon used the highly inflated "eligible voters" instead of actual voters. The term "eligible voters" is ambiguous between being registered voters and being registered voters plus people who are qualified to register to vote. California does not know how many "registered voters" there are because the voter rolls are poorly maintained. A private company that provides clean-up voter rolls to pollsters and others reportedly flagged 3M California voter registrations as no longer being at the registered address (with high probability).

Paragraph 10: Non-quote: "Each of California’s last nine Governors has faced multiple recall attempts, though only two of those attempts have qualified for the ballot." Gee. That doesn't sound like a process that is easily manipulated by nefarious groups. The petition to put the recall election on the ballot required 1.5M signatures, computed as 12% of the votes cast in the previous election for that office. That corresponds to over 16% of the votes cast in the recall.

Paragraph 10: Non-quote: "More than 70% of the attempts to recall elected state officials that have qualified for the ballot, including the only two statewide recall elections in California history, have occurred in the last 27 years."
The choice of "27 years" is a red flag for cherry-picking. The period covers the rise of the Internet, and an alternative hypothesis would be that technology was making it somewhat easier to organize against the incumbent/established parties.

There's a bit more in the ^Palo Alto Online^ article from the press conference (via Zoom conference call).
Paragraph 3: "Berman said his biggest issue with the current system is the relatively low threshold for ousting and replacing an incumbent governor." (emphasis added). When I look at the numbers, I don't see how Berman could claim this other than mouthing the party line regardless of the actual data.

The 2003 Recall Election Redux: What surprised me was that the Democrats' campaign to delegitimize the recall election repeated many of the talking points from the 2003 Recall (Gray Davis). What didn't surprise me was that the Republican Party hadn't gotten around to having good responses, or at least none that I saw.

Conclusion: I would guess that 80-90% of my newsfeed are articles about politicians and other partisans trash-talking each other, with maybe 50% including the trash-talking in the headline. This seems to have increased in recent months.
I have a forlorn hope that the public would openly react negatively to absurd claims and other nonsense by politicians and other partisans, leading to a change in the media, probably by the legacy media dying out and being replaced. What I wrote about here should have been an article by a major media company that got republished by other media outlets -- reporters have been largely replaced by "repeaters" (I don't know the origin of this).

An ^abbreviated index by topic and chronologically^ is available.

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