How to Avoid a Recall Collapse and Improve California Elections
It’s not too late for the state legislature to correct this messy way of conducting a recall election: Here’s a simple, local fix.
By Steven Hill
Steven Hill is co-founder of FairVote and author of “10 Steps to Repairing American Democracy” and “Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics,” [email protected]
Larry Diamond, Special for CalMatters
Larry Diamond is a Principal Investigator at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University, [email protected]
This is the game for Governor Gavin Newsom’s recall. The governor’s recall in 2003 that hit California like an earthquake seems like a long history, so here’s a quick recap in an effort to help California do better than last time around.
In this wildest Wild West election, 135 candidates were running to replace Governor Gray Davis, including movie stars, a pornstar, a pornographer, recovering politicians and wannabes. The winning candidate, movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, got less than 50% of the vote, meaning more voters preferred someone else. Davis was kicked out of Survivor Island in a rather bizarre reality TV episode.
Conventional wisdom says this will not happen again. And the latest poll numbers indicate Newsom will survive this recall. Yet that’s what early polls also suggested in 2003. A Los Angeles Times poll six weeks before the election found Davis’s recall had declined. He lost anyway.
What’s really frightening about the recall is the ill-conceived process dictated by the state constitution. The first part of the recall ballot will ask voters if they want to kick Newsom out. The second part will ask voters to choose a replacement, if the recall is successful.
The winner of the replacement contest is the one who obtains the most votes, even if that candidate wins much less than a majority. In 2003, after Schwarzenegger, the second highest candidate had only 31%. The third place candidate had 13%. With so many candidates, the election becomes a dice game with many spoiler candidates and a massive split of votes among like-minded voters. An extremist candidate with a strong core of support could possibly win, even if he lacks a broad base.
Dan Walters, senior columnist in California, saw such a possibility for this governor’s recall. “With low Republican voter registration, the GOP’s most viable strategy would be to have a single candidate and hope for a proliferation of non-Republicans on the ballot, thus reducing the number of votes needed for a winning plurality. “
Elections are like a board game, with certain rules that players – in this case, political candidates and their consultants – try to manipulate in order to win. The recall rules are ripe for manipulation that could lead to a very strange result – a Republican governor, elected by a small minority of voters, in this most democratic state.
But it is not the partisan result that would diminish democracy, it is the lack of support from a majority of Californian voters.
It is not too late for the state legislature to fix this mess. There is a simple solution, in fact a local Golden State solution. San Francisco, Oakland and many other cities in California elect office holders using ranked choice voting. RCV, as it is called, allows voters to rank multiple candidates on their ballot. The leaderboards are used in a series of “instant draws” to eliminate the less popular candidates until a majority winner is elected in the final round.
If the governor is recalled, the ranked choice vote would elect a successor with the broadest support, with no spoiler candidates and no split votes, turning the end result into a roll of the dice.
Beyond fixing a flawed recall process, RCV could be combined with the California “general primary” to make all of our state elections more democratic. The current system, in which the top two graduates of the primary compete against each other in the November general election, is already suffering from split votes, spoiler candidates and sometimes bizarre results.
In many congressional and state races, the top two are from the same party, as if there were no other perspectives for voters to consider. In some legislative districts, split votes and spoilers resulted in the top two candidates each holding around 15% of the vote. In another district, two Republicans ran in the November election in a liberal district because too many Democratic candidates broke away from the center-left vote.
Or what about the district where the lead candidate, a Democratic senator, spent $ 50,000 to support a penniless Republican opponent in order to prevent his stronger rival, a fellow Democrat, from running in the November election ?
Additionally, since California began using the “Top Two” primary in 2012, only a handful of third party candidates have reached the November ballot. This reduced the choice of voters.
A better way would be to use the “Top Four” method just adopted by voters in Alaska. Starting in 2022, it will send the top four finalists from a non-partisan primary to the November election, then use ranked choice voting to elect the winner. The top four with a ranked choice vote will give voters more choice and control, make elections more competitive, and reduce split votes and spoiler candidates.
In this era of heavily partisan (and often gerrymandered) legislative constituencies, most elections are decided in the primaries, not in the November elections. As a result, a new report from Unit America found that only 10% of eligible voters nationwide voted in the primaries that effectively decided over 80% of House races in the United States. Primary voters tend to be more hyper-partisan than in the November election.
California can lead the way for this polarizing, anti-democratic fog by using the ranked choice vote for the recall election and then converting the current Top Two primary to the Top Four with RCV. This would result in a less partisan and more functional democracy.