Why I envy California voters

In the Newsom recall, voters have a rare opportunity to throw one of the bums out

Gavin Newsom.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

I will confess: I am just a little envious of California voters.

In a one-party state, as California increasingly is, democracy can get quite attenuated. When the real power struggles happen inside rather than between parties, the power of activists and favored insiders increases, and the minority dispensation gets more and more alienated from the process of government. Moreover, when there's really only one viable party, whoever is in charge becomes very hard to dislodge, even when their performance falls short.

California's initiative process does provide one mechanism to check a distant government in Sacramento — one the voters have used repeatedly, often surprising observers when this blue state doesn't toe the liberal line (most recently on affirmative action). But I'm leery of direct democracy. Voters really shouldn't be making policy; they should be voting for representatives to do that — and, if they aren't happy with the results, they should throw the bums out.

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That's why I have a twinge of envy right now. Thanks to the recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom, California has an opportunity to throw one of the bums out — and the Democratic Party is increasingly terrified that they just might do it.

Mind you, I agree with most observers that the specifics of the recall mechanism in California are more than a little bit insane. If Newsom is recalled — and the polling right now really is neck and neck — the next governor will not be Lieutenant Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, but the plurality winner on the replacement ballot that is conducted simultaneously with the recall. And unlike in 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger won with nearly 50 percent of the vote (far more than his leading Democratic opponent Cruz Bustamante), there's no comparably dominant opposition figure today. So the next California governor really could be someone like Larry Elder, a conservative talk show host with no government experience and views far outside the California mainstream, who is currently polling at less than 20 percent.

But the particular insanity of this recall election is partly the fault of the California Democratic Party, and a consequence of that party's dominance of the state. In order to shore up support for Newsom, the party's message to voters has been to vote against the recall, and not to vote at all on the second question of who should be his replacement. And they've discouraged any other prominent Democrat from running — the leading Democratic candidate is probably Kevin Paffrath, a 29-year-old YouTuber. That's why the alternatives to Newsom are so alarming to Democrats. So as the polling has gotten more ominous, their messaging has, too: Voters must reject the recall even if they want Newsom gone, lest they reap catastrophe.

That amounts to holding the state hostage, which is a profoundly undemocratic attitude to take. But there's not much else they can do at this point: The deadline for filing as a replacement candidate passed on July 16th, and even if Newsom resigned tomorrow, the election would go forward as planned — and for all we know, resigning would boost support for the recall by misleading supporters into thinking there's no more reason to vote. After the election, hopefully the recall process will be reformed; having the lieutenant governor take office after a recall and holding a special election for a new governor six months after that seems like a pretty simple fix, albeit one with additional costs. But for the next three weeks, the Democrats are just going to have to white knuckle it.

So why do I feel a twinge of envy?

I live in New York City and State, two more increasingly one-party jurisdictions. And I can tell you, for years I wished there was a plausible way to vote out Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. I am not alone; I don't know anyone who voted enthusiastically for de Blasio's second term in 2017, or for Cuomo's third in 2018. Newsom may have appeared popular, but so did Cuomo until very recently — even de Blasio had some basis for deluding himself into believing the people were with him. In all three cases, that popularity was mostly just partisan identity and ideological positioning, not deep affection or respect. Similarly-positioned replacements would be equally or more popular, but primary challenges are exceedingly difficult to mount even against unpopular incumbents, and neither Cuomo nor de Blasio ever faced a genuinely serious threat.

And that's why I envy California voters, who at least have the opportunity to register their displeasure, to express something comparable to the no-confidence measures that can bring down governments in parliamentary systems at any time. It shouldn't be necessary to threaten impeachment over sexual harassment charges to remove an executive who has lost the confidence of the people.

It shouldn't be necessary to risk electing an extremist — of the right or of the left — to remove them either. I don't envy California the specific choice before them next month. But political monocultures do need mechanisms for voters to express their displeasure before things get to the point of crisis. If California's recall mechanism isn't a good one — and it isn't — they should build a better one.

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