This week, voters in San Francisco recalled Chesa Boudin, the city’s district attorney and the face of the nationwide progressive prosecutors movement. The election, widely described as a referendum on crime and disorder and a backlash against the more left-wing edge of the Democratic Party, was a caustic local struggle played out on the national stage. It was democracy at work, with the public ousting a leader they considered incompetent or unfit.
It was also part of an under-recognized national trend: a boom in recall efforts across the country, targeting all manner of public servants, of all political stripes. This recall push is largely due to voter anger at incumbent politicians and all. Yet it is also a symptom of a long-standing political disease. Especially at the state and local levels, Americans are being asked to vote in many convoluted and oddly timed elections more or less designed to keep the masses from showing up. Ironically, making recalls harder to organize and less frequent — and getting low-propensity voters to have their say in regular elections — could make our democracy more democratic, not less.
Boudin’s recall was a prototypical example of San Francisco’s unique knife-fight policy in a San Francisco phone booth and an expression of local anger over local issues, including an increase in hate crimes against Asians and burglaries in residence. Still, the vote was not unique: The number of recall attempts more than doubled from 2019 to 2021, according to a tally by Ballotpedia, reaching the highest level since the group began tracking them. This hasn’t translated into an increase in successful recalls, at least not yet. Nationwide, voters removed just 25 public officials from office in 2021; 19 other civil servants resigned in the face of an attempted recall. Nevertheless, the boom is real.
Voters seem eager to evict the incumbents, ticked off on COVID, inflation, gun violence, skyrocketing rents and countless other factors. A new The Wall Street Journal/The NORC poll, for example, found that 83% of voters rate the economy as “bad or not so good,” the highest level of dissatisfaction in five decades, and political approval ratings are down across the board. domains. Anger results in electoral turnover. In places that have held primaries so far this year, incumbents in state legislatures have lost at the highest rate in nearly a decade, and many members of Congress are choosing to retire rather than join. to present.
“Dissatisfaction is key” when it comes to recalls, says Joshua Spivak, author of a book on recall elections and a senior fellow at the California Constitution Center at Berkeley Law. “There’s this voter anger that really fuels things.” In recent years, school board officials have been a common target across the country and have made up a large part of the wave of recalls. In San Francisco, voters recalled three school board members this year, amid parental dissatisfaction with COVID policies and controversy over proposed school name changes. Likewise, high-profile divisive campaigns — in some cases spurred in part by unfinished conservative concerns over critical race theory — have unfolded in Virginia’s Loudoun County (overturned by a local judge last month) and in suburban Milwaukee (failed in the ballot).
The huge amount of money available for political campaigns — as popular small-dollar spending and oligarchic big-dollar spending grows — could be one more factor in the recall boom. So does the intensely partisan climate, with local races finding themselves wrapped up in national issues. The same goes for the ease of publicizing such campaigns on social media, notes Spivak.
Anxiety alone, of course, is not enough to trigger a recall. It takes organization and money, resources that political activists seem to want to provide lately. Most of the recalls are an expression of intraparty political conflict, not interparty political conflict, Spivak says. Democrats have collected signatures to recall Boudin, and a Democrat will name Boudin’s temporary replacement. Nevertheless, recalls offer activists of one party or ideological faction the opportunity to eliminate a rival politician and give them better chances than in a general election. The math is simple: a cause with a hundred committed supporters could be crushed in an election of a thousand people, but roll to victory if only 250 bother to vote. With low turnout elections, “you have this potential for groups and individuals with a significant stake in a single election outcome to play a much bigger role,” says Sarah Anzia, a UC Berkeley political scientist who has studied the timetable for the elections.
California Governor Gavin Newsom’s attempted recall last year illustrates this phenomenon better than Boudin’s dismissal. I would describe the attempt on Newsom as chimerical. Still, he had a chance of succeeding if turnout had been low enough, taking the governorship from a valued professional who won 7.7 million votes and handing it over, essentially, to a guy-a member of a Republican party who currently holds no statewide office in California and hasn’t even supported him in his race. It didn’t work, and turnout was surprisingly high, only because the Democrats ended up calling Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, among other figures, to elicit the vote, wasting money, energy and time. from everyone.
Callbacks by San Francisco voters of Boudin and school board members have at least had broad public support in the polls. In both cases, more people voted to recall the officials than to put them in place in the first place. Still, in neither election will the voter turnout reach 50%, when 86% of San Franciscans voted in the 2020 general election. And in neither case will the activists who pushed for the recalls had evidence of fraud, negligence, criminal behavior or gross incompetence, as is the norm in many places.
Voters simply do not As what the officials were doing. But there’s already a way for people to unseat politicians whose policy choices they don’t like – in normal elections, ones that don’t cost the city millions of dollars, in which more of their neighbors will run, and that does increase the risk of a bizarre political spoiler mounted by political cynics hoping for low turnout. Recalls are a cornerstone of California’s participatory democracy and voter control over the executive. But they are also a way for a small number of highly motivated supporters to tax resources and stifle the desires of a larger, calmer, more diverse and less wealthy audience.
If more recalls succeeded across the country, fueling more recall efforts, the overall effect would be troubling. Already, American voters are voting for too many places, too often, in elections that are too hard to vote and come at inconvenient times. The political solutions are simple: limit recalls, have fewer problems and officials on the ballot, move to nonpartisan primaries and ranked ballots, push for independent redistricting, and hold local elections at the same time as presidential elections and mid-term elections. Make it easy to vote. And make sure officials come in with the support of a broad group of people and protect them from being ousted by a small, motivated minority. A little less democracy might be good for democracy, after all.