Berman stands at the front of a room addressing an audience
Assembly member Marc Berman discusses the state high school ethnic studies curriculum at the offices of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco, Sept. 16, 2019. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

These Jewish lawmakers want to reform California’s recall system

Months before Californians cast their ballots in the recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom, Assemblymember Marc Berman and Sen. Steve Glazer began a pivotal conversation about reforming the state’s recall election system.

“We did something unusual,” Glazer said. “We talked over the summer about the likelihood that there would be cries for reform at the end of the recall election, and that we both had an interest in seeing if we could both work together, both at different houses of the Legislature, but join together from the start in terms of a thorough examination of the recall process.”

They were spot-on.

A UC San Diego Yankelovich survey conducted the week of the Sept. 14 recall election found that 68 percent of California voters want changes to the recall system. Among them, 40 percent want “major changes.” In a follow-up question, 52 percent supported having the state Legislature create a commission to consider recall changes.

“We announced the day after the recall that we were going to hold hearings over the next few months to bring people together to try to have a substantive bipartisan conversation about the different recall reform ideas that are out there, to learn about how other states conduct their recalls, and to figure out what might be a better process for California,” said Berman (D–Menlo Park).

Glazer, who chairs the Senate Committee on Elections, and Berman, chair of the Assembly Committee on Elections, hope that by the end of the hearings they’ll have a measure to put on the November 2022 ballot offering fixes to the state’s recall system.

The question is whether a small band of partisans can create chaos by using it under the existing rules.

“There should be accountability in our political system, so I am a supporter for the recall process that provides that accountability. The question is whether a small band of partisans can create chaos by using it under the existing rules,” said Glazer (D–Contra Costa County).

Among the 19 U.S. states that allow recall elections of state officials, California has one of the lowest thresholds for number of signatures required to initiate a recall — only 12 percent of the votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. More than half of the states with recall elections require 25 percent or more.

“You have this really low threshold,” Berman said. “It creates a system that can be abused, not necessarily because the governor did something illegal or ethical misconduct, but just because you don’t agree with a policy decision that they made.”

A recent poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies shows that 55 percent of California voters want to increase the number of signatures required to trigger a recall, and 59 percent want to toughen the rules so that officeholders can only be recalled for illegal or unethical conduct.

Last month, 68 percent of voters elected not to recall Newsom, a victory with margins close to the results of the 2018 election that put him in office.

“The state spent somewhere between $276 and $300 million just to validate what happened three years ago, and what could happen next year,” Berman said. The next gubernatorial election is in November 2022.

“There is great lament that those resources could have been there to feed the hungry and to house the homeless and to improve the education of our state for so many millions of school kids,” Glazer said. “All that money down the drain in this failed recall process that we just went through.”

In addition to holding legislative hearings, Berman said, a website seeking feedback from the public is in the works.

It remains to be seen what voters will decide when a recall reform measure comes up for a vote, but Berman suggested that smaller modifications, rather than a major overhaul, might garner bipartisan support.

“I think small changes can have a big impact,” Berman said. “I think we don’t need to totally redo everything to just make it a better system.”

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.