The Recall Election Proves Mail Ballots Are Good For Democracy

by Brian Schrader

California's democracy is strong. Now we need to use that strength to tackle some big problems.

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The effort to recall Governor Gavin Newsom failed, and it did so because of our state’s wide-ranging support for mail ballots and early voting. Earlier this year, bolstered by the success of mail-in voting during the 2020 election amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the California state legislature passed, and Governor Newsom signed a measure guaranteeing mail ballots were to be sent to all registered and active voters during the recall, and another bill—which Governor Newsom is expected to sign—will expand this policy to every future election. These changes have set the stage for California to become one of the most small-d democratic states in the country—a place where broad participatory democracy is possible in practice; not just in theory.

By early morning on election day it had already become apparent that the turnout was going to be fairly high. At that time over 40% of ballots had been returned. By that Friday, CalMatters estimated total turnout to be around 57%, which is significantly higher than some recent Gubernatorial elections and according to the New York Times, puts the recall election in the same category as "a high-profile midterm," rather than a "low-wattage special election."

Recall Turnout Results as of Sunday 9/19

The election to recall then Governor Gray Davis totalled nearly 9.5 million total votes. Estimates place the total votes for this year's recall election at 12.8 million total votes. Go democracy!

In person voting was in full swing and voting by mail had already proved its effectiveness. In a democracy, free and fair elections are critical, and it’s equally important that elections have a high turnout. An engaged and educated electorate is the lifeblood of democracy, and by all accounts California’s democracy is healthy and strong.

While the official counts will take some time to be finalized as the last few ballots trickle in through the postal service, the election was a success, not only because Californians rejected a bad-faith recall of a popular governor, but because the recall was rejected in a high-turnout election.

One data point could just be a fluke, and the 2020 election was about as fluke-prone as possible, but with the recall soundly defeated, it's safe to say that California’s last two elections—which featured automatic mail-in voting for every registered voter—have been an unprecedented success for democracy in the state. Turnout has rarely been higher, elections rarely more secure, and results rarely more definitive.

Historical Trend of Voter Turnout

California's historical voter turnout since 1970. It's trending up!

The recall effort was a single part of a complicated set of tactics aimed at turning California in to what some call a vetocracy; a form of government where individuals or small groups find it easy to jam up the machine of government and bring things to a halt. In fact, it would seem that vetocracy is a regrettable part of the broader American tradition. But this month Californians rejected the temptations of vetocracy in favor of capable democracy.

The fight to end vetocracy doesn’t end here. We need to make the process of triggering recall elections more difficult. California’s recall process is by far the most easily abused in the country; a fact we shouldn’t be proud of. Ballot measures can be bought by the wealthy, referendums can be triggered by monied interest groups, and popular programs can be permanently delayed by those willing to abuse well-intended environmental law.

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We need to ensure that California’s elections are sacrosanct, and that trust in the process is high. We need to ensure that unscrupulous monied groups aren’t able to waste the state’s money on pointless recalls, or buy ballot initiatives granting permanent exemptions from labor law. Universal mail-in voting is a huge step in the right direction. The last two elections have proven that California’s democracy is strong, now we need to use that strength to reenforce the foundations, tackle overdue repairs, and invest in our future. Only then can we stand strong against the challenges to come.


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