All the concern about a possibly undemocratic result in the recall election understates the problem. All California elections need reform, because they don’t match how human beings think, choose and vote.
For one thing, humans do best when we have a lot of information about a few clear choices. But our state elections often give people dozens of possible candidates, about whom we often have very little information. Low-information elections are vulnerable to misinformation.
We Californians did this to ourselves. Over the last decade, voters eliminated party primaries for state and federal elections here. The change was supposed to discourage polarization and produce more moderate candidates. It’s done the opposite.
In the party primaries of old, a voter could study their party’s short list of candidates, then choose one. The process gave us a greater sense of the people for whom we were voting.
Now, our current “top two” system, imposed on our long and cluttered ballots, confuses and overwhelms voters. We put the dozens of candidates for one major public office together, regardless of party, with 30 or more names running over multiple pages. It’s impossible for voters to know anything about more than a handful of the candidates — much less to find their choice in the jungle of names.
The recall replacement election, with 46 candidates, is thus a typical California electoral predicament — which is one reason why voters are confused about how to vote. Democrats, unable to create clear messaging, have surrendered and told voters not to cast a vote for a replacement governor. When the state’s largest party is telling people not to vote, something is seriously wrong.
California-style elections also discourage voter turnout. And they can be easily gamed. The problem goes beyond the recall election problem that someone with just 20 percent of the vote might replace a governor who 49 percent of the people want to remain in office.
In California, a party that offers more competition, and more compelling candidates, can end up losing despite having majority support. Imagine an election in which 60 percent of the voters want to vote for Democratic candidates, but there are six viable Democrats who get around 10 percent of the total votes. All six candidates could easily finish behind two Republican contenders who divide up just 40 percent of the votes, getting 20 percent or so each. In such a case, the winner — or the top two candidates who advance— would have a tiny plurality of support, from the party with only a minority of support.
That isn’t democratic. And it doesn’t fit how we vote. Humans are party animals — party affiliation almost always determines our vote, studies show.
Which is why our reforms should make it easier for us to vote by party. The best method for that would be proportional representation, in which Californians vote for a party or slate of party candidates. Each party would receive a number of representatives equal to their percentage of the vote.
If that’s too radical for you, another alternative would be to replace the current election system with ranked choice voting, which elevates candidates with broader support — unlike the top two and the recall jungle election systems, which benefit candidates with narrow, intense backing.
Unfortunately, these types of reforms aren’t on the table. Instead, California elites are offering proposals to limit democracy — like making it harder to qualify recalls for the ballot, even though it’s already very hard — requiring 1.5 million signatures in a short time frame. (A judge’s ruling gave this year’s recall four extra months to qualify; in the normal time frame, it never would have made it.)
Others are arguing for limiting the basis for recalls — requiring that a politician be guilty of violating the law or corruption to be removed from office. That’s dumb. People should be able to remove their governor for incompetence, failure, or any other dereliction of duty. In this apocalyptic century, a governor who can’t respond effectively to emergencies must be replaced — to save lives.
Making it harder to use recalls also would diminish some of the positive effects of the tool. Gavin Newsom’s performance clearly improved earlier this year when it appeared he might face a recall. He was more responsive to the public, replaced failing staff members, and took more aggressive actions to aid needy Californians.
Regardless of whether Gavin Newsom wins or loses, California may win — if this recall election forces us to reform all of our elections.