Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

What’s the Future of Recalls Following Gavin Newsom’s Win?

California's Democratic governor survived a GOP challenge. That doesn't mean recalls are going away. Technology has made it easier to motivate voters and raise funds nationally.

Gov. Gavin Newsom greets President Joe Biden, right, who flew out to California Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, to give his support to the embattled governor.
(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)
Although polls about a month ago indicated California Gov. Gavin Newsom was in danger of being recalled, he survived easily once votes were counted on Tuesday. The reality is that high-profile recalls tend not to change partisan outcomes from previous elections.

“Perhaps the voters don’t move so much,” says Joshua Spivak, author of the new book Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom. “For a governor of a very Democratic state, it’s not a shock that the electorate would get what they want, which is the same party staying in power.”

Governing spoke with Spivak about the future of recalls following the failed attempt at unseating Newsom. Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, is the editor of The Recall Elections Blog.

Governing: Newsom looked like he might be in real trouble. Why do you think he survived?

Spivak: This started out as the COVID-19 recall for the Republicans. They’ve since moved on and don’t want to talk about that subject. For the Democrats, it’s become the COVID-19 election. As an electoral issue, Republicans don’t seem to be running on it. They want to talk about other things. The Democrats feel this can be an issue beyond their base.

There is also one other interesting factoid that I have here. In past recall elections of governors, the results pretty closely mimic the last election that they won. (California Democratic Gov.) Gray Davis got 47 percent in his election in 2002 and 44.6 percent in 2003. (Wisconsin GOP Gov.) Scott Walker was elected with 52.3 in 2010 and took 53.1 percent in the 2012 recall. (Note: Newsom won with 62 percent in 2018.)

Governing: We hadn’t had a recall election of a governor for 80 years prior to Gray Davis and now we’ve had two in the 18 years since. Why are there so many recalls in this era?

Spivak: Each one has its own quirks, but I also feel that recalls are going up because of technology. You’re able to get people interested, you’re able to nationalize elections. The ability to get people interested, to get people active, to fundraise — that has all been helped by technology. Not just social media but spreadsheets and cellphones.

Just knowledge of the weapon makes it more likely to use, and Schwarzenegger helped. (Note: Arnold Schwarzenegger was an internationally famous film star before replacing Davis as a Republican in the 2003 recall.) “Now I know about recalls.” After the Schwarzenegger recall, we saw an episode of “The Simpsons” with recalls and episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” Although interestingly Indiana, where “Parks and Recreation” is set, does not allow recalls.

Governing: Do recalls work?

Spivak: Recalls can be pretty effective. Sixty percent of the politicians are removed and six percent resign. For most offices, you usually get re-elected, and the recall turns that on its head.

That said, is it a particularly useful partisan weapon? Eighteen years after Schwarzenegger’s election, the Republican Party is close to defunct in California. In Wisconsin, did the Democrats really benefit from Scott Walker’s recall? Four years later, the party lost the presidential vote in Wisconsin for the first time since 1984.

Governing: Do you think California Democrats will try to change the state's recall rules? There’s already talk about that.

Spivak: If they raise the signature threshold, that’s an easy change. The bigger question is will they do a radical change. But if you’re a Democrat, why would you do that? Since 1994, there have been eight recalls of state officials in California, and seven of them were Democrats. You’d think Democrats should be upset. The important fact is that since 1994, Republicans have been in a bad downward slide. Democrats should think, this isn’t bad for us. Republicans are looking for shortcuts, and shortcuts aren’t where it’s at.

Governing: The Gray Davis recall seemed to spark more recalls at the local level. Do you think this attempt will prompt more, given that Newsom prevailed?

Spivak: I do think to some degree it’s here to stay, but it’s still going to be a minor weapon in every state. It’s difficult to use, and it’s not available in every state. There’s a concern that it just upsets the other party, it doesn’t help you.

In 2019, after Democrats won everything in Colorado, Congressman Ken Buck became the GOP chair. He said I’m going to teach them how to spell recall. There were several attempts against legislators and Jared Polis, the governor, and what was the result? Biden had the best result of any presidential candidate since 1984. Is this the weapon you really want to use?

Governing: What are some other notable recalls on the horizon?

Spivak: There are recall attempts involving Chesa Boudin, the district attorney in San Francisco, and the San Francisco school board, with neither of them remotely related to the same issues. There’s also one against George Gascón, the district attorney in Los Angeles. That one seems very difficult. You need more signatures than you needed against Walker in Wisconsin.

There’s been an enormous amount of recall attempts against school board members. Very few of them have gone to the ballot. At least so far, there have been fewer than in any year I’ve tracked. It went from an average of about 70 school board members to at least 177 as of right now. Almost all of them are about the pandemic and hybrid learning, with a few over critical race theory. Very few have made it to the ballot.
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Special Projects