How to avoid a recall meltdown and improve California elections

by Steven Hill and Larry Diamond, CalMatters, May 4, 2021

It’s game on for the recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom. The gubernatorial recall in 2003 that struck California like an earthquake seems like ancient history, so here is a quick recap in a bid to help California do it better than the last time.

In that wildest of Wild West elections, there were 135 candidates running to replace Gov. Gray Davis, including movie stars, a porn star, a pornographer, recovering politicians and wannabes. The winning candidate, movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, had less than 50% of the vote, which means that more voters preferred someone else. Davis was thrown off the Survivor Island in a rather bizarre episode of reality TV.

Conventional wisdom says that won’t happen again. And the latest poll numbers indicate that Newsom will survive this recall. Yet that’s what early poll numbers suggested in 2003 as well. A Los Angeles Times poll six weeks before the election found support slipping for recalling Davis. He lost anyway.

What’s really hair-raising about the recall is the poorly designed process dictated by the state Constitution. The first part of the recall ballot will ask voters whether they want to eject Newsom. The second part will ask voters to pick a replacement, if the recall succeeds.

The winner of the replacement contest is the highest vote getter, even if that candidate wins far less than a majority. In 2003, after Schwarzenegger the next highest candidate had only 31%. The third-place candidate had 13%. With so many candidates, the election becomes a crapshoot with numerous spoiler candidates and massive vote-splitting among like-minded voters. An extremist candidate with a strong core of support could conceivably win, despite lacking a broad base.

Dan Walters, dean of California columnists, has glimpsed just such a possibility for this gubernatorial recall. “With low Republican voter registration, the GOP’s most viable strategy would be to have just one candidate and hope for a proliferation of non-Republicans on the ballot, thereby lowering the number of votes needed for a winning plurality.”

Elections are like a board game, with certain rules that the 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 outcome – a Republican governor, elected by a small minority of voters, in this most Democratic of states.

But it’s not the partisan outcome that would diminish democracy, it’s the lack of support from a majority of California voters.

It’s not too late for the state Legislature to fix this mess. There is a simple solution, in fact a Golden State home-grown solution. San Francisco, Oakland and many other California cities elect officeholders using Ranked Choice Voting. RCV, as it is known, allows voters to rank multiple candidates on their ballot. The rankings are used in a series of “instant runoffs” to eliminate the least popular candidates until a majority winner is elected in the final round.

If the governor is recalled, Ranked Choice Voting would elect a successor who enjoys the broadest support, without spoiler candidates and split votes turning the final result into a roll of the dice.

Beyond fixing a defective recall process, RCV could be combined with California’s current “top two” primary to make all our state elections more democratic. The current system, in which the top two primary finishers face off in a November general election, already suffers from split votes, spoiler candidates and occasionally strange results.

In many congressional and state races, the top two finishers are from the same party, as if there are no other perspectives for voters to consider. In some legislative districts, split votes and spoilers have resulted in the top two candidates each having 15% or so of the vote. In another district, two Republicans advanced to the November election in a liberal district because too many Democratic candidates split the center-left vote.

Or how about the district in which the lead candidate, a Democratic state senator, spent $50,000 to support a penniless Republican opponent to prevent his strongest rival, a fellow Democrat, from making the November election?

Also, since California began using the “Top Two” primary in 2012, only a handful of third-party candidates have reached the November ballot. This has reduced choice for voters.

A better way would be to use the “Top Four” method just passed by the voters of Alaska.  Beginning in 2022, it will send the top four finishers in a nonpartisan primary to the November election, and will then use ranked choice voting to elect the winner. Top Four with Ranked Choice Voting 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 districts, most elections are decided in the primary, not in the November election. As a result, a new report from Unite America found that just 10% of eligible voters nationwide cast ballots in those primaries that effectively decided more than 80% of U.S. House races. Voters in the primaries tend to be more hyper-partisan than in the November election.

California can lead the way out of this polarizing, anti-democratic fog by using Ranked Choice Voting for recall elections, and then converting the current Top Two primary to a Top Four with RCV. That would result in a less intensely partisan and more functional democracy.

Steven Hill is co-founder of FairVote and author of “10 Steps to Repair American Democracy” and “Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics,”

Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University,

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