California Democrats are dressing up their opposition to the Sept. 14 recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom by pointing to high-minded principles, but their arguments are hard to take seriously. Progressives don’t really think that the recall process is illegitimate or unconstitutional. They simply don’t like that it’s being used against one of their own.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this particular recall, mainly because the organizers blame in their “statement of reasons” illegal immigrants for the bulk of California’s problems. Our state’s problems entirely are the making of its U.S.-citizen politicians and the voters that have empowered them.

Nevertheless, the recall process – like the two other cornerstones of direct democracy, the initiative and referendum – is dyed into the fabric of our state. Today’s progressives, who claim to stand for the power of the People against special interests and the political class, despise a process that was devised by early 1900s progressives for that explicit purpose.

Their opposition is situational, an outgrowth of their fear that the public isn’t nearly as given to liberal pipedreams as they would like. Note the results from November, when the same California voters who reliably send Democrats to Sacramento rejected initiatives that would expand rent control, increase commercial property taxes and re-impose race-based college admissions. They supported a measure that exempts drivers from a ban on independent contracting.

This special election is entirely legitimate. State law clearly spells out the rules. Recall supporters gathered the requisite signatures, submitted them for approval and have legally placed it on the ballot. By contrast, California Democrats toyed with the schedule, as they passed a law designed to speed up the election date because they believed an earlier date would help Newsom.

As news reports note, they previously passed a law to protect Democratic Sen. Josh Newman from a recall in 2018 by moving the date to a more Democratic-friendly primary. Their goal in both situations was to rig the rules to benefit their candidates, so they ought not to lecture us about their, er, principled opposition to this time-tested election innovation. Their only principle is whatever helps them the most.

“Democratic Party Chair Rusty Hicks and a lineup of Democratic elected officials claimed the recall effort was a ‘coup’ to remove Newsom, led by far-right extremists including white supremacists and neo-Nazis,” according to an Associated Press report from January. I love this line in the AP story: “However, they provided no evidence to support the allegations.” Seriously, a coup?

Democratic attacks on the recall haven’t gotten much better since then. “The same Republicans who refused to hold Donald Trump accountable for the deadly insurrection of January 6th are now trying to hold Governor Newsom accountable for the failures of Donald Trump. The recall effort is partisan, reckless, dangerous,” said U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, D-California.

From a political perspective, it’s fair game to depict this election as a partisan, right-wing, blah-blah-blah effort, but I’m disturbed by ongoing arguments that the recall process itself is some affront to democracy or a distortion of the original creation. The father of direct democracy, Gov. Hiram Johnson, argued, “that if you believe in the recall, and if in your wisdom you desire its adoption by the people, you make no exception in its application.” That’s rather far reaching.

The latest absurdity comes from UC Berkeley professors Erwin Chemerinsky and Aaron Edlin. They’ve offered a novel argument for why this type of election, which is embedded in the state Constitution, is unconstitutional. They’re concerned that the winning candidate might end up with fewer votes than the “no” side on the recall question.

“The most basic principles of democracy are that the candidate who gets the most votes is elected and that every voter gets an equal say in an election’s outcome” they argued in a New York Times op-ed. “The California system for voting in a recall election violates these principles and should be declared unconstitutional.”

That’s a fascinating legalistic theory, but simply is a contortion that would gut the state’s direct democracy in service to short-term political preferences. As Johnson noted in his First Inaugural Address, “The opponents of direct legislation and the recall, however they may phrase their opposition, in reality believe the people cannot be trusted.”

Progressives apparently no longer trust the people they claim to represent. Conservatives – at least in some other states – aren’t much better as they seek to rein in their initiative systems because they are yielding results (e.g., marijuana legalization) they dislike. That’s an odd position for newfound champions of populism.

California voters often do the wrong thing, but I trust them to decide whether to recall their governor. But whatever you decide, base it on your views of Newsom’s governance – not on bogus arguments about the illegitimacy or undemocratic nature of the state’s recall process.

Image credit: Susanne Pommer

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