ON SEPTEMBER 14th Californian voters will decide the fate of their Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, in a special recall election. Mr Newsom is just the fourth governor in American history to face a recall vote. Just one gubernatorial recall has been successful in California, in 2003, when the unpopular Gray Davis was removed and replaced with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a film star. Attempts to remove public officials from office through recalls have increased in recent months. How exactly does a recall election work, and why is this once obscure electoral tool getting so much attention?

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The recall—along with the ballot initiative and referendum—was introduced during the “Progressive era” at the start of the 20th century as a way for American voters to bypass the power that big business, especially the Southern Pacific Railroad, exerted over politicians. In 1908 Oregon was the first state to adopt the tool, enabling voters to recall state officials; California followed in 1911. Today 41 states allow for the recall of a public officeholder, and 19 states allow for the removal of state-level politicians through a recall vote. For a recall to qualify for the ballot, a politician’s critics must file a petition outlining their grievances and gather enough signatures supporting the recall by a deadline. In California the number of signatures required is at least 12% of total votes cast in the previous election, but 13 states require 20% or more. Most recall attempts fail, although of those approved for the ballot, two-thirds result in the politician either being recalled or resigning, says Joshua Spivak, the author of “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom”.

In this instance voters in California will be presented with two questions. One is whether they want to recall Mr Newsom. If a majority says “yes”, then he is recalled, and the second question, of who should succeed Mr Newsom, becomes important. There are more than 40 people vying for his job, most of them Republicans. The candidate who garners the largest number of votes wins. However, some have questioned the fairness of a system in which Mr Newsom could have the support of nearly half of voters (with, say, 49% voting not to recall him), yet be replaced with someone with significantly less support (say, 15%). This could create a potential “legitimacy problem”, says Ken Miller, a professor at Claremont McKenna College.

Regardless of what happens to Mr Newsom, California’s legislature is likely to revisit the rules regarding recalls and may propose tweaks, such as increasing the number of signatures needed to trigger a recall of a state official. This will require changing the state’s constitution. Some feel that Republicans are abusing the recall process to try to win the governorship when they could not do so through a normal election. Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one in California, and Republicans have not won a state-level office since 2006.

In the months ahead, recalls will continue to generate headlines. Technology has made signature-gathering and canvassing easier at the same time as covid-19 and its associated restrictions have fuelled voters’ discontent. In the first nine months of 2021 there were 500 attempts to recall public officials in America, 15% more than in the full year for 2019, according to Mr Spivak. School-board officials are popular targets due to mask mandates, covid-19 closures and other issues. There are around 180 recall attempts being waged against them, nearly triple the number in 2019. In other words, disgruntled voters want to school politicians at all levels.

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