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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Mess uniquely Californian

by John Brummett | August 29, 2021 at 1:44 a.m.

I've had many discussions--mostly arguments--with right-wingers who stand by the antique American affront to democracy that is the Electoral College.

Most of the exchanges have come down to the right-wing assertion that we are lucky that vacant American spaces get inordinate power in selecting presidents because, otherwise, those packed-in screwballs in California would dictate everything.

I've countered that Americans are Americans no matter where in America they live, and that, just as a Pulaski Countian's vote for governor counts as much as a Pike Countian's, presidential votes should count the same human to human rather than vary place to place.

But now I must say that even I'm given pause about packed-in screwball Californians.

I refer to the prospect that, in a couple of weeks, Californians might use their absurdly easy recall system to install as their governor an extremist right-wing Trumpian radio-show host who would get less than 20 percent of the vote in a light turnout.

It turns out there is something less democratic than the Electoral College, and it is the state that gets the rawest undemocratic deal in the Electoral College.

Dating to 1911, California has had the nation's easiest system for recalling public officials. First you need petitions signed by a number of registered voters equaling 12 percent of the last governor's race turnout. Then people vote up or down on recalling the sitting governor. In case more than 50 percent favor recall of the incumbent, they also vote from a slate of new candidates, with the candidate getting the most votes ascending to the governorship, no matter the size of the plurality.

Early last year, conservatives--badly outnumbered in California--launched a then-trivial recall effort against Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was in the middle of a four-year term that he won by 62 percent.

Then came the virus and Newsom imposed some of the strongest restrictions in the country, such as an early masking order he got caught violating at a swanky restaurant at a birthday party for a political insider. Hypocrisy in politics tends to get resented equally in either partisan direction, especially in troubled times.

Then California Democrats had a great general election, doing their overwhelming part to dump Donald Trump and installing a super-majority, veto-proof Democratic state legislature to work with Newsom.

Then they kind of went to sleep on politics, including the matter of the recall campaign against their governor for whom they were actually losing affection considering growing hardships with homelessness, wildfires and cost of living.

So, here's where California seems to be at the moment, less than three weeks before recall day and with mail voting already underway: Polls show Newsom's retention favored by 50 percent of respondents, with 47 percent wanting to recall him, and that, should he fail to get 50 percent plus one, and with no serious Democrat running in a tactical Democratic attempt to protect Newsom, the likeliest next governor from dozens of candidates is a right-wing radio host named Larry Elder, polling at 18 percent, higher than anyone else, and who opposes mask and vaccine mandates and abortion and who once said employers should be able to ask female job applicants whether they intend to have children.

Here's conceivably what could happen: Newsom could get 49.9 percent to stay in office and lose the governorship to a radio blowhard with 18 percent.

Sixteen months with a right-wing radio-show host as the accidental governor dealing with a super-majority liberal Democratic legislature would be an experience best described as positively Californian.

On a television program the other evening, three California women self-identifying as liberal Democrats said they were leaning toward voting to recall Newsom because he seemed unresponsive and Democrats had started to rile them by not using their super-majority to do more to combat homelessness and wildfires.

Asked how they'd feel if their recall vote installed a Republican getting 20 percent or less, they said that would be horrible.

It wasn't clear whether they were seeing the strategic advantage in keeping Newsom in office at least for the relatively short remainder of his term and opposing him vigorously in a Democratic primary next year. Lashing out is not a strategy.

The outcome hinges entirely on whether Democrats will bother casting votes on the recall.

What's fatally flawed in California's recall system is that it's too easy to call an election; that recall is by a simple majority vote when it takes two-thirds of the U.S. Senate to remove a president who led an insurrection, and that a recall doesn't lead to the ascension of a lieutenant governor or the calling of a special election, but can lead to some guy moving into the Governor's Mansion with 18 percent.

The California recall system is somehow even less democratic than the Electoral College that devalues California's votes for president.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Print Headline: Mess uniquely Californian

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