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Recall Election

Analysis and Discussion


What is a Recall Election?

I think we all know the basic answer to this question, which is that it is an opportunity to vote an elected official out of office and replace her or him. This article seeks to inform the reader about how California recall elections work and where they fit into a broader picture.

In California, recall elections come under the initiative statutes - in other words, they are a type of referendum, which would ordinarily appear on the ballot as a proposition. In this case the "proposition" is that the elected official should be recalled. This is the reason that recall elections have looser rules than regular elections, as you may have noticed, watching the developing governor's race!

The basic procedure involves filing a recall Notice of Intent, and then gathering signatures so that the recall election can be be held. The number of signatures needed is determined by the number of registered voters which will be eligible to vote in the election. When the signatures have been collected and certified, the election is called. Just as in the California state elections, the cost of the election falls to the county(ies) or district(s) in which the election takes place.

As voters here are probably by now aware, the California recall ballot is in two parts. In the first part, a single question appears: "Should the official be recalled?" If more than 50% of the voters say "yes", the official is recalled. The second part of the ballot has the names of those running for the office (the incumbent's name does not appear here, as their chance was in the top half). If the recall goes through, the candidate receiving the most votes in this section will be elected. A majority is not needed, in fact there is no minimum percentage needed. It has happened many times in recall elections that the incumbent "loses" by a few percentage points, and the "winner" gets far fewer votes.

How do California recall elections differ from those in other states? Like California, most states (but not all) have provisions for local recall elections (however, unlike California, most of them do NOT have provisions to recall state officials, which is left to impeachment-type procedures). State election laws vary as to how these are carried out, but they are largely similar in all but two areas:

- Grounds - In California, grounds stated for the recall can be very vague - essentially saying "didn't do a good job" is sufficient. (Again, the initiative process is partly why "anything goes".) In some other states, the actions causing the initiation of the recall must be much more specific. Usually, this involves illegality (usually a felony), blatant misconduct, or failure to perform duties as prescribed by law. In some cases, the grounds must be so specific as to name times and places where the misconduct occurred.

Here is an example from the South Carolina elections code regarding recall elections:

Physical or mental lack of fitness, incompetence, violation of his oath of office, official misconduct, or conviction of a felony offense enumerated in the current statutory laws of this State is the only basis for recall.

- The Ballot - In some states, the election is essentially redoing the original election. There is no two-part ballot, instead, the incumbent runs again along with everyone else. In others, there is a two-part ballot, but the incumbent appears on the second half as well. In some other countries, recall elections, as regular elections in that country, can only be won by a majority, therefore run-off elections, including "instant run-offs" (where voters priority rank their votes) take place until this occurs.

There was a meeting recently to inform the international press about California recall election procedures. Many minds were boggled at that meeting! People from other countries just couldn't understand why recall elections would be set up the way they are here in California. And yet, this process is all we have. All the more reason to be very careful how we use it.

Related Article - Are California Recall Elections a Subversion of the Democratic Process? Laura says "yes".