In-Depth: UCSD survey finds broad support for reforming the recall

Gavin Newsom
Posted at 6:37 PM, Sep 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-29 01:00:13-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- A new survey by political scientists at UC San Diego finds both Democrats and Republicans support amending California’s constitution to reform the rules surrounding recall elections.

The UCSD Yankelovich Center survey of 2,812 registered voters found 68 percent of respondents think California’s recall process needs changes, with the lion’s share supporting “major” reform.

“All types of voters said that they would be open to major changes,” said UCSD political science chair Thad Kousser, who oversaw the poll. “It’s not just Democrats, who are the most supportive of reform, but also independents and Republicans.”

The UCSD survey collected responses before and after election night to help control for how people’s attitudes changed with the election outcome. It found support for recall reform is 10 points higher than in 2003 when voters ousted then-Governor Gray Davis in favor of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Changing California’s recall rules would require a constitutional amendment. Such an amendment would first need approval from two-thirds of each house in the state Legislature. Then the change would need ratification from voters. It could appear on the ballot as early as November 2022, Kousser said.

The Yankelovich survey measured voter attitudes to more than a half dozen potential reform proposals.

In California, initiating a recall takes signatures. California sets the threshold to qualify at 12 percent of the turnout for the last gubernatorial election, one of the lowest thresholds in the country.

By comparison, Kansas sets its signature threshold at 40 percent. Most states set thresholds of 20 or 25 percent. Only Montana and Virginia set minimums of 10 percent, although Montana’s threshold is based on registered voters instead of turnout.

Fifty-four percent of respondents to the survey said they would support an amendment to increase the signature threshold to a higher level, “such as 20 percent.” Thirty-five percent of respondents were opposed.

On the ballot itself, California and Colorado are the only states that vote on both recall and the replacement candidate on the same ballot. Forty-nine percent of respondents said they would support separating the questions into two elections, with 37 percent opposed.

Separating the elections would free up members of the governor’s party to run in the event of a recall, Kousser said. In the 2021 recall, Democratic Party leaders kept high-profile candidates from running to avoid hurting Newsom’s chances, he said.

A larger share of respondents supported a different way to separate the election: 53 percent said they favored a run-off between the top two replacement candidates.

By far, the most popular reform was to add language to California’s constitution specifying when a recall is appropriate, such as for “corruption or criminal acts.” California’s constitution currently allows recall for any reason, including simple political disagreement.
That proposal had the support of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents, Kousser said.

“I think right now voters on both sides are kind of saying, ‘You know what? We really want to have this process to get rid of bad apples, but we’re not sure that it should be open for any means at any time,’” he said.

Other reforms garnered less support. A proposal to minimize the recall’s partisan incentives by automatically replacing the governor with the lieutenant governor found support with 43 percent of respondents. Another 41 percent opposed the idea.

Even less popular was a proposal to delay off-cycle recall elections until the next mid-term or presidential election. The reform is designed to boost turnout and make the electorate more demographically representative. Studies show off-cycle elections tend to draw older, more white, and more conservative voters.

Forty-six percent of respondents said they opposed such a change. Voters signaled they favored a more immediate and responsive removal option, Kousser said.