"Now is not the time," a smirking California Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a campaign press conference with firefighter unions Tuesday, "to waste hundreds of millions of dollars on a recall effort that is nothing more than a partisan power grab."
Fortunately, that is not the governor's call to make. The 1911 recall provision in the California Constitution mentions nothing about canceling elections should they prove too costly; there are just signature requirements, after which the vote must be scheduled.
Yet that isn't stopping the Golden State's desiccated political class from letting the crocodile tears flow over government spending.
"Neither the state nor the counties should be stuck footing the bill for such an unnecessary election," California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D–Lakewood) told the Los Angeles Times. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.), fresh off passing the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, blasted Republicans for "wasting time and money." Mused Democratic strategist Darry Sragow, in an Associated Press article: "I'd say that framing it as a waste of money and waste of time probably is going to be pretty effective with swing voters who aren't sure what they're going to do about the recall."
What would a recall election cost? We don't know yet. The next step in the process is to see how many of the 1,626,042 valid petition signatories decide to withdraw their support of the recall between now and June 8; assuming that number isn't disqualifyingly high, the state's Department of Finance will issue a cost estimate, which will then be reviewed by the state legislature's budget committee. All that is expected to take place over the summer.
But that doesn't mean we can't get some scary numbers out ahead of time. At first, Newsom estimated the price tag on the special election at $81 million. Then his decidedly unsubtle supporters over at Stop the Republican Recall (sample line: "The recall is powered by a partisan, Republican coalition of national Republicans, anti-vaxxers, QAnon conspiracy theorists, anti-immigrant activists and Trump supporters") upped the ante.
"Instead of fighting COVID-19, Republicans are pulling a page from the Trump playbook and attacking Californians," the website alleged. "In fact, a Republican recall will cost the state $100 million – money that could be used to help vaccinate our communities."
Then, right as the recall signatures were being validated, the cost estimate was goosed by a multiplier of four from the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials (CACEO), a public sector lobbying group. "There is an urgency to this," CACEO President Donna Johnston told the Times. For her group, certainly—county election officials don't want to bear any extra costs, so they are lobbying the state government, which in fact is pretty flush in cash, but they are probably grumpy both about the recall and the unlikelihood of getting any federal COVID-relief dollars for a purely state exercise.
CACEO arrived at its self-interested $400 million figure by assuming "the same [COVID] protocols and mandates as November," Johnston told CapRadio, meaning mailed ballots, protective gear for election workers, large venues for social distancing, and so on. Such measures helped make the November 2020 election the most expensive in California history, at an estimated $292 million. One would hope that the proliferation of the vaccine and the diminishment of the pandemic would lead to some relaxation of cost-inducing precautions, but it's not as though Sacramento has been particularly nimble in adapting to COVID science.
At any rate, the concern over cost is an argument best applied in three areas: 1) examining and reforming the standard provision of elections; 2) questioning in particular the pandemic-induced requirements of 2020; and 3) trying to convince voters not to sign the recall petition in the first place. Sure, it's hard to take seriously the fiscal conservatism of a political class that has produced a multi-billion-dollar high-speed train to nowhere, but at least it's an argument. Unlike bitching about the cost of an election that is constitutionally required to take place.
At some point, particularly if (as polls currently indicate) Newsom survives the recall, you will likely start to see more calls to change the California Constitution, in order to make it harder for those nasty Republicans to discomfort Democratic incompetents every 18 years or so.
"Think of all of the good you could do with this money," Loyola Marymount University law professor Jessica Levinson told the A.P., cutting to the chase. "But it also makes sense not to use taxpayer funds on this anyway."
California Democrats, having long since won 100 percent of elected statewide offices and two-thirds of the legislature, are no longer so keen on certain Progressive Era electoral remedies. Even though the recall mechanism has only made it to the ballot 10 times in 110 years, Dems this legislative session "have introduced several bills that would make it harder to recall elected officials in the state."
So enjoy the last remaining check on Democratic misgovernance while you still can, California voters. You'll miss the circus when it's outlawed. After which you'll never hear about the perils of costly government again.
Start your day with Reason. Get a daily brief of the most important stories and trends every weekday morning when you subscribe to Reason Roundup.