Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO, and director of the PPIC Statewide Survey, was invited to speak at a hearing of the Little Hoover Commission on October 14, 2021. This post is excerpted from his prepared remarks.
There have been 55 attempts to recall the governor in the 110-year history of the state’s direct democracy system, according to the California Secretary of State. The two gubernatorial recalls that succeeded in qualifying for a vote occurred under very different political circumstances. Yet voters’ attitudes toward the recall process are remarkably similar over time. These surprising findings from the PPIC Statewide Survey—which monitored attitudes before both the 2021 and 2003 recall elections—provide useful political context for current efforts to reform the recall process.
This year, most California likely voters opposed the recall of Governor Gavin Newsom according to PPIC surveys conducted in the months before the recall election: 39% said they would vote yes for Newsom’s recall in our final pre-election survey. This finding was very close to the 38% yes result in the September 14 special election.
In contrast, eighteen years ago most California likely voters supported the recall of Governor Gray Davis in PPIC surveys leading up to the recall election: 53% said they would vote yes for Davis’ removal in our final pre-election survey. Again, this was very close to the 55% yes result in the October 7 special election. In starkly different outcomes, Gavin Newsom remained in office in 2021 and Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Governor Davis in 2003.
What about attitudes toward the recall process itself? Our July survey finds that 86% of California likely voters say that it is a “good thing” that the California Constitution provides a way to recall the state’s elected officials, such as the governor. This is in line with the overwhelming sentiment that the recall process is a “good thing” expressed in 2003 (80% August, 76% October). Today, Californians are united in their support for the recall across parties, regions, and demographic groups.
Despite strong support for the recall option, it is noteworthy that a strong majority (66%) of California likely voters in our July 2021 survey say that the recall election process in California is in need of major or minor changes (32% say it is fine the way it is). Majorities in 2003 also said that the recall process was in need of major or minor changes (58% September, 57% October). Today, majorities across regions and demographic groups agree that change is needed to improve the recall process; Democrats and Republicans are divided over how much change is needed.
We also asked about three key recall reform proposals before both the 2021 and 2003 recall elections. One reform in particular received the strongest and most consistent endorsement: a top-two runoff. A majority of likely voters (68%) believe that there should be a runoff between the top two replacement candidates if no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, according to our July 2021 survey. A majority across parties (74% Democrats, 59% Republicans, 69% independents) agree with this proposal. A similar share of likely voters (64%) were in favor of a top-two runoff of replacement candidates in our October 2003 survey, as were half or more across parties (77% Democrats, 50% Republicans, 65% independents). Today, solid majorities across regions and demographic groups are in favor of having a runoff if no one gets over 50% of the vote.
Another reform idea involves a change in the basis for holding a recall; this also has majority support, though it is not quite as strong as support for the runoff. Currently, an elected official may be recalled for any—or no—reason. Sixty percent of California likely voters support raising the bar so that an elected official could be recalled only because of illegal or unethical activity; however, partisans are divided (79% Democrats, 40% Republicans, 48% independents). A similar 59% held this view in our October 2003 survey; again, partisans were divided (79% Democrats, 37% Republicans, 60% independents). Today, majorities across regions and demographic groups support instating this reason for a recall.
A third reform would raise the signature requirement from 12% to 25% of the total votes cast in the previous election for that office; while it also has majority support, this reform is somewhat less popular than the other two. Fifty-five percent would support the higher signature requirement; once again, partisan groups are divided on this change (76% Democrats, 26% Republicans, 49% independents). A similar 56% wanted to raise the signature requirement in our October 2003 survey, and again, partisan groups were divided (73% Democrats, 35% Republicans, 64% independents). Today, about half or more across regions and demographic groups are in favor of this reform.
It is important to keep in mind that majority support for these three recall reforms—demonstrated in both 2021 and 2003—does not assure an easy pass at the ballot box. About one in six California likely voters say they know “a lot” about the recall process, according to our July survey. Thus, it will require voter education and trusted messengers who can make the case that the recall—widely viewed as a “good thing”—will get better with these changes.
In closing, the PPIC Statewide Survey indicates that views of the recall—and its potential reforms—have been stable over the last 18 years. In both 2021 and 2003, likely voters report highly favorable views of the recall, strong interest in making changes to the process, and varying levels of majority support for three recall reforms.
As a next step, our next PPIC survey will determine if there have been any shifts in recall attitudes and policy preferences since the September 14 election. This fall, we will monitor discussions about recall reforms in the Little Hoover Commission, legislative committees, and independent commissions; we will explore new proposals in PPIC surveys next year. We also plan to follow any recall reforms that make it to the November 2022 ballot. Governor’s recalls are rare, but major events and process changes will have a significant impact on the future of California’s democracy and elections.