Had this week’s California recall election succeeded, millions of Democrats would have inadvertently helped to get Republican radio host Larry Elder elected governor. How? By choosing to reject alternatives to Gov. Gavin Newsom. There’s a lesson here in how Democrats and Republicans treat third-party voters and others who reject the options the two big parties feed them.
The recall failed, and it failed badly. The vote totals are still incomplete, but with about 75 percent of the ballots tallied, 3.3 million Californians voted to recall Newsom and 5.8 million voted to keep him.
But that was just the first question on the ballot. All the voters, regardless of how they voted on the first question, had the opportunity to choose one of the 46 candidates running to replace Newsom. Those votes don’t really matter now, since the recall failed. But obviously, each individual voter would have no way of knowing the recall would fail until after the election.
So far, the state has counted 9.2 million ballots. Only 5.1 million of those voters chose a candidate to replace Newsom. A full 4 million voters ignored the second question—which, to be clear, was something the Democratic establishment was encouraging them to do.
Elder got by far the most votes among the replacement candidates, with 2.3 million. In second place was Kevin Paffrath, a real estate YouTuber running as a Democrat. He received a mere 500,000 votes.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume all the voters who ignored the second question were Newsom supporters and Democrats. (In reality, there no doubt were a number of people who voted for the recall but declined to choose a successor and a number of Republicans who rejected the recall.) If all those people had voted for Paffrath, he would have beaten Elder. But if the recall had succeeded with the current replacement votes, the governor’s office would have changed parties, because those Newsom backers didn’t vote on the second question. Millions of Democrats essentially threw their second votes away, something both the major parties often accuse third-party voters of doing.
This is a thought exercise, and admittedly, a bit of a stretch. In order for the recall to have succeeded, millions of those very same people would had to have voted for the recall, meaning they no longer supported Newsom. And presumably, had they done so, they probably would have selected a replacement. There were several Democrats on the ballot, though the state Democratic Party declined to support or endorse any of them, and no major names within the party ran.
The people who declined to choose a successor didn’t know for sure that the recall would fail. But they knew that they didn’t want anybody else. So rather than choosing the most palatable of the 46 alternatives, they opted out. They rejected the choice.
Were they wrong to do so? Absolutely not. Yes, there was a chance that it would have backfired in their faces. But there’s no moral problem with looking at the choices in front of you and deciding to reject them all, or to go with some “fringe” choice that best represents your positions. These voters decided that Newsom was their man, and they weren’t going to settle for some random Democrats even if that meant that Elder might become governor.
Good for them. Well, not for supporting Newsom: He’s a terrible governor. But he’s the terrible governor that they want.
You might think that, having had the experience of deciding that the most morally correct response to the recall was to refuse to vote for a replacement, Democrats would learn that people who vote for third-party candidates or don’t vote at all might have good reasons to do so. Rather than blaming them for, say, Hillary Clinton’s presidential defeat, they might ask how the party ends up with such unappealing candidates that they have to beg, plead, and ultimately shame people into voting for them.
Instead, the Democratic establishment has concluded that democracy itself is to blame. The big argument right now is that recalls are too easy and the rules need to change. In fact, petitions circulate virtually every year to try to recall California governors and other state politicians. Very few of them ever make it to the vote.
Meanwhile, California already has mechanisms in place to deprive voters of candidate choices. The state’s top-two run-off system leaves many folks stuck with two candidates from the same political party in November, with third-party candidates shoved out months earlier.
Newsom’s recall arguably happened not because there was too much democracy but because there wasn’t enough. Too many people felt they had no say in the lockdowns or in Newsom’s authoritarian emergency orders. That the recall ever gained any traction at all reflected resistance to harmful policies that, despite what Newsom might claim, were not “following the science” about preventing the spread of COVID-19. Other states’ lawmakers have pushed back when governors abuse their emergency powers in a pandemic. But not in California, leaving citizens without a lot of recourse.
This is also why ballot initiatives have become such a big deal in California. Democratic leaders in this one-party state habitually pass laws that serve the needs of entrenched interests, leaving direct democracy as the citizens’ line of defense. We saw that with A.B. 5, the terrible law that absolutely demolishes Californians’ right to work as freelancers. It took a ballot initiative to weaken it, and the unions are still fighting it (and unfortunately winning). Sometimes ballot initiatives are the only way to bypass an unresponsive state government.
California is in not in danger of having too much democracy. Citizens should slap down (metaphorically) any attempt by the Democratic Party to undermine the state’s recall systems, which progressives put in place to give citizens the ability to respond when politicians are so beholden to special interests that voters are just ignored.
Above all, the number of people who ignored the second question on their recall ballots should remind Democrats that not voting can be a moral rejection of bad choices. Neither Democrats nor Republicans are entitled to voter support just because they’ve managed to create a political environment where they’re only the options voters are given. That’s anti-democratic.
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