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California Gov. Gavin Newsom talks to reporters after winning the recall election Tuesday.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom addresses reporters after beating back the recall attempt that aimed to remove him from office, at the John L. Burton California Democratic Party headquarters in Sacramento, Calif., on Tuesday.
Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

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Opinion: California’s recall shows why Utah should never adopt such a thing

The effort to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom evolved into an expensive, full-blown election only one year before the next regularly scheduled election.

You really want a recall provision in Utah.

How do I know? Last March, the Deseret News and the Hinckley Institute of Politics asked you about it in a poll conducted by independent pollster Scott Rasmussen. The result: 75% were at least somewhat in favor of it, with 44% saying they were strongly in support. The error margin was 3.1% either way.

It’s the kind of question that touches raw political emotion. A percentage of the population typically is unhappy being led by someone it didn’t vote for. In this case, the question was asked during a pandemic, with a lot of people feeling surly about a host of issues tied to restrictions, or the lack of them.

Beyond that, people generally like to flex their muscles in a democracy. In the United States, power rests with the people, and the people like to remind their leaders of that.

But California’s failed recall effort against Gov. Gavin Newsom, which ended in a resounding decision to retain him, ought to be enough to warn Utahns away.

To understand why, ask yourself, what was California’s recall about? If you said COVID-19 restrictions, you get an F; except, of course, that it’s a trick question. This became what it was about, along with other popular issues of the day.

The original recall petition was filed in February of 2020, a month before the virus forced anyone to work from home or think about social distancing. It focused on immigration, high taxes, a high rate of homelessness, water restrictions in a drought, taxes, parental rights and the governor’s opposition to the death penalty.

That’s quite the laundry list. Noticeably missing was any mention of malfeasance in office.

But once the petition succeeded, both parties went into campaign mode and all issues were fair game, especially those surrounding the unfolding pandemic.

In other words, it became another full-blown election, only one year before the next regularly scheduled full-blown election, and the cost, according to the state Department of Finance, was $276 million.

Some people are saying California should change its recall laws, limiting them to specific reasons, such as criminal misconduct. Kansas, for example, allows recall elections only for “conviction of a felony, misconduct in office, or failure to perform duties as prescribed by law,” according to Ballotpedia.org.

But it hardly would matter. The reasons for starting a petition are secondary. They are designed to get people to sign. Once a petition succeeds, the political process makes all issues fair game. If a candidate has committed a crime, a criminal investigation or an impeachment process seems a better remedy than a popular election.

Utah is no stranger to this issue. Earlier this year, some organizations called on Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to resign after he involved Utah in a lawsuit seeking to overturn election results in four states President Joe Biden won. Separately, some people called for State School Board member Natalie Cline to resign over social media posts they said were xenophobic, racist and homophobic. That resulted in a rare public reprimand of Cline by all but three members of the board.

A few years ago, Salt Lake County leaders agonized over how and whether to remove the elected county recorder, Gary Ott, who was showing signs of dementia, and whose top aides were accused of covering up for him. Ott eventually resigned.

In 2014, Utah lawmakers considered a bill that would have allowed recall elections for governor, attorney general, state auditor and state treasurer. The bill would have put the idea on the ballot as a proposed state constitutional amendment. Mercifully, it died in a committee.

The only proper justification for a recall election would be to protect the public from crimes or malfeasance in office. For all other grievances, including decisions made in the course of governing with which people disagree, the normal election cycle should suffice. In today’s hyperpartisan world, however, it’s often hard to tell the two apart, and a recall quickly becomes just another political weapon.

Ballotpedia.org says 20 states allow gubernatorial recalls. And while some would argue that their extremely low success rate shows they aren’t a threat to democracy, the same source

said 164 recall efforts have been launched this year alone against 262 state and local officials nationwide.

As California demonstrated, these take time and resources to resolve. Utahns should be glad they are free from such distractions.

Jay Evensen is the Deseret News’ senior editorial columnist.

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