After the excruciatingly long and ugly spectacle of Bob Filner’s exit as San Diego’s mayor, it’s entirely understandable that some suggested making it easier to get rid of horrible elected officials in California.
Filner refused to go gracefully even as residents began collecting nearly 102,000 signatures needed on recall petitions, the City Council unanimously called for him to step down, and a long line of women accused him of sexual harassment. He all but blackmailed the city into paying some legal expenses to get him to resign voluntarily as of Aug. 30. Before finally leaving the stage, he held a self-indulgent news conference in which he blamed a “lynch mob” and quoted from the eulogy for Robert F. Kennedy. It was shameful.
Despite the public outrage, there are all sorts of reasons why local elected boards and the Legislature should take a deep breath before rushing in the direction of easier recalls.
While no community wants to be stuck with a truly despicable public official, recalls can be costly and time-consuming. At the same time, if it becomes too simple for voters to orchestrate do-overs, campaigns might never end and officials would have a more difficult time governing.
Is that what we really want? Is that really better for our democracy?
Hardly. It’s never good to overreact to extreme cases. We don’t need the Legislature to pass a “Filner’s Law” to prevent a problem that may not arise again for years.
While elected officials, like everyone else, should get some slack for mistakes, they need to be held accountable. Recalls, however, should be reserved for particularly egregious conduct in office or breaking core campaign promises, not just a few personal foibles or controversial votes or straying from party doctrine. And if a public official is truly corrupt, local and state prosecutors should be more aggressive about going after them.
Despite calls for easier recalls, the current rules in California – stricter than some states, looser than others – have worked pretty well. For instance, after a big corruption scandal in Bell, voters in March 2011 overwhelmingly recalled four City Council members, who were also criminally charged for having their hands in the public till. Last year, 11 officials in California were recalled, four survived attempts and more than 60 others were targeted, according to one tally.
In California, the rules on how many signatures must be collected – and how quickly – are based on the office the targeted politician holds. For statewide offices, the requirement is 12 percent of the total vote in the last election for the particular office. It took more than 897,000 signatures to force Gray Davis into the historic recall election in 2003 that ended his governorship.
In the biggest cities, it takes signatures from at least 10percent of registered voters – or more than 22,000 in Sacramento – to force a recall election, and they must be handed in within 160 days. In smaller cities, more signatures are required and there’s less time to get them. In Davis or Folsom, for instance, it’s 20percent of registered voters within 120 days. In Placerville, it’s 25percent and 90 days.
State law puts some restrictions on recalls. They cannot be started when the officeholder is not at least 90 days into a term, or when the incumbent has survived a recall within the last six months, or when the incumbent’s term of office is ending within six months.
It gets even more complicated. Some charter cities have their own rules. In San Diego, for instance, it takes 15percent of registered voters, and less time is allowed. In Sacramento, officials have to be in office for at least six months before they can be recalled.
Shaun Bowler, a political science professor at UC Riverside who has studied recalls, says finding the sweet spot for recall requirements isn’t easy. “There’s not a ‘Goldilocks’ moment when it comes to the democratic process,” he told me.
In theory, recall provisions empower voters and give them more ownership of the political system. The recall came out of the same Progressive movement in the early 1900s that gave California voters the initiative to bypass the Legislature and put issues on the ballot, and the referendum to overturn legislative decisions and decide constitutional changes.
Yet recall requirements also should be tough enough to stop ones over silly issues and to discourage perpetual campaigns. You don’t want losers in an election to go after the winners for no good reason and force another costly vote. Regular elections should count for something. And we don’t want to further scare off good people from running for office.
Robert Huckfeldt, a political scientist at UC Davis, says there needs to be a balance between voter control and voter accountability.
In the absence of an impeachable offense, the bar for recalls “should be pretty high,” or there can be political chaos, Huckfeldt says. “It’s responsible voters and responsible electorates living with the choices they’ve made,” he told me.
Nearly 40 states allow recalls of local elected officials, and nearly 20 permit recalls of state officeholders. Some, unlike California, require allegations of wrongdoing, not merely disagreements over issues or mere buyer’s remorse. Last year, more than 100 officials faced recall elections, with half getting kicked out and half surviving, according to the nonprofit Ballotpedia. California had the second most recall votes, behind only Michigan.
Just last week, Lassen County voters removed a supervisor who had been in office for a decade, but who riled up recall proponents by voting to dismiss the county’s top administrator. The same day, voters in Colorado ousted two state legislators who supported stricter gun laws after last year’s movie theater massacre in Aurora.
“The recall is beneficial,” Bowler says. “But it’s not a panacea, it’s not a silver bullet.”
As Californians learned all too well with Gray Davis, it’s too easy to think that just getting rid of a politician will fix what’s wrong with the system.
That takes the hard work of being active citizens, speaking out and keeping public officials honest. In our representative democracy, that’s how it should be.
Follow Foon Rhee on Twitter @foonrhee