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California Secretary of State Shirley Weber is interviewed at the CalMatters offices on Oct. 5, 2022.
Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
By ALEXEI KOSEFF, CalMatters
It did not take long after Gov. Gavin Newsom handily defeated a recall attempt last year for California Democrats to begin calling for changes to overhaul a process that they complained had been weaponized.
Secretary of State Shirley Weber, a Democrat appointed by Newsom in 2020 as the state’s chief elections officer, was among them, offering several ideas of her own to the Legislature earlier this year.
But when the dust settled on the legislative session in August, all of the bills proposing revisions to how California removes a governor from office had stalled, with little public explanation for why lawmakers dropped their efforts.
Weber, who is running this fall for her first full term as secretary of state, told CalMatters that, if she wins, she will continue pushing for changes to the recall system, even though anything the Legislature adopts will not go before voters for approval until November 2024 — more than three years after the Newsom recall election.
“Yes, it is worth it, and my staff is working on it now,” Weber said in an hour-long interview last week with CalMatters. “I was disappointed that they didn’t move forward with it.”
Weber supports standardizing the signature requirements for qualifying a gubernatorial recall around a percentage of registered voters, rather than those who participated in the last election, so proponents cannot take advantage of low turnout to target their political foes.
But her main recommendation is to separate the two questions that now appear on a gubernatorial recall ballot: Whether to remove a governor and who should replace him or her. Weber said the focus last year on the field of replacement candidates, led by conservative radio host Larry Elder, obscured a real debate on Newsom’s record.
“Very little conversation occurred about: Does this man need to be recalled? Has he done something so egregious that we want to remove him from office?” Weber said.
Under the system she favors, if a governor is recalled, the lieutenant governor would step in until a separate special election is held. If the recall happened close to the next gubernatorial election, the lieutenant governor would serve out the remainder of the term instead.
Weber argues that this would ensure a replacement favored by a majority of voters. In last year’s election, Newsom discouraged any Democrats from jumping into the race and told his supporters not to select a replacement on the ballot at all. That resulted in Elder winning the second question with barely more than a quarter of the total votes cast, far behind no choice.
“That was one thing that we realized from that system, that even if there had been a recall, there would’ve been the vast majority of Californians [who] did not approve that person,” Weber said. By splitting the questions, “all the parties would then feel comfortable in running for the new seat.”
Here are some other highlights from CalMatters’ interview with Weber:
Keeping the ballot accessible
A contentious battle over sports betting is once again setting new campaign spending records in California. But Weber is not convinced that the process for qualifying an initiative needs an overhaul, which she worries might lock out grassroots campaigns and attempts to deal with issues caught up in legislative gridlock.
“I’m not in the business of trying to make it harder for people to get on the ballot,” she said.
Nor does Weber agree that the role of writing the title and summary for those measures should be taken away from the attorney general and given to a nonpartisan source. Critics argue that, as a politician, the attorney general is not an objective authority, though Weber counters that the office consequently has more accountability.“You have at least one last hammer, which is the election process. When you don’t have folks who are accountable, then you may end up with something great and you may not,” she said. “I’m not sure there’s any person on the face of the earth that’s impartial.”
Weber is more open to revising the referendum system, which has become an increasingly popular tool for business groups seeking to overturn new laws affecting their industries. She said those campaigns can be especially confusing for voters, a problem she hopes to address with projects to better inform the public about what’s on the ballot, such as an interactive voter guide and television forums about the initiatives.
Read more of ‘What would Shirley Weber do next as California secretary of state?’ on CalMatters.CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.
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