It’s hard to think of a better bargain in our high-cost state than the recent recall election. At an estimated cost of $276 million — $7 per Californian — our state got a monthslong democratic exercise that inspired public investments, improved the governor’s performance, and may even save lives.
Maddeningly, many Californians (some of whom call themselves Democrats) persist in calling this democratic triumph an expensive waste of money. If they don’t want to look like hypocrites, they should stop complaining, reconsider this election’s math and reflect more deeply on the price of democracy.
Let’s start with the number: $276 million is almost nothing in a state California’s size. That figure represents less than 1 percent of the current budget surplus, and about one-tenth of 1 percent of the overall state budget. To put it in another context, the election cost $100 million less than the Dodgers are paying their right fielder.
Still, media commentators claim, falsely, that the recall took $300 million away from schools or homelessness. The truth is the exact opposite. The recall, and the political pressure it put on Democrats, helped increase funding for core government services to historic heights.
And let me blunt: If legislators had had another $300 million, they likely would have blown it on their own donors. That’s precisely what happened in July, when the state wasted $330 million by doubling the size of ineffective tax credits for wealthy Hollywood producers.
Those same politicians could have reduced the recall’s cost by $60 million if they hadn’t moved the election date up to September to give Newsom a political advantage. But let’s not worry about such hypocrisy, because even with the additional cost, the recall was worth it.
Spending more on elections has never made more sense than right now. California’s election system is in the midst of a historic transition — to mail ballots and voting centers — that is so far a success, with turnout up. But this progress is fragile because of rising attacks on democracy, and increasing harassment of the county officials who run our elections.
More than 80 percent of the $276 million cost of the recall is going to those same county election officials — who, in running the recall election, get to reinforce new election infrastructure, find new ways to bring out voters, and take measures to protect themselves and their elections against threats. The rest of the money (more than $30 million) is used by the state to do things like create voter guides in the different languages that Californians speak.
Think of the recall’s cost as money spent on infrastructure — democratic infrastructure. And instead of complaining about it, think of how much more we could invest in it. If we’re serious about saving democracy, we should create funding for every California municipality to have a robust office to support public participation, raise and stabilize election funding, provide more public financing for campaigns, with an emphasis on supporting better information about ballot measures.
More people paying more attention to democracy can help reshape history.
Just look at the dramatic transformation of our governor, who was flailing and unfocused — until it became clear the recall would qualify. Then, Newsom made personnel changes, curbed his bad habit of creating working groups or commissions (he even had a “task force” on oxygen), and started taking big, direct actions. After months of avoidance, he pressured schools to reopen, replaced an ineffective business loans program with grants, junked the confusing COVID colored-tier system, and reopened the state in June. (If this sounds like cheerleading, well, Newsom saved that, too, reversing a ban on cheerleading after high school sports reopened.)
The hip-hip-hoorays didn’t stop there. Newsom moved to shut down homeless encampments. And his recall-year budget made too many historic investments — from health coverage to college affordability to transitional kindergarten — to list here.
In this context, Newsom’s landslide victory does not mean that the election was unnecessary. To the contrary, his win shows the recall’s value. The election affirmed the governor’s big impactful acts of governance, and set the stage for more aggressive action, particularly on vaccinations — meaning this recall will almost certainly save lives.
Now, Californians just have to keep Newsom — who is prone to distraction — angry, vulnerable, and on edge, as he was during the recall. If he gets complacent, perhaps some civic-minded Californian can qualify another recall to improve the governor’s focus — and give us another opportunity to spend millions more on our democracy.