A History of Recall Elections

Here at Orange County Bail Bonds been talking about the recall effort to remove Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon because of his weak stance on crime and his position on bail (he’s against it). It’s interesting to look at the history of recall in the United States, and more specifically, in California.

A recall election was designed originally to let the public remove an elected official before their term in office has ended. Unlike impeachment, which is an indictment for an alleged criminal act, a recall election is the public displeasure with an elected official for various reasons: a failure to keep campaign promises, suspicion of corruption, or a general unhappiness with the way the politician is managing their office.

The practice of recall elections was established as a way of minimizing the influence of political parties on elected representatives. It was meant to insure that officials would act in the interests of their voters rather than a political party.

The first appearance of recall dates back to 1631 in Colonial America in the laws of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Around the time of the American Revolution, the Articles of Confederation declared that state legislatures could recall delegates from the Continental Congress. The first successful recall of a State Governor was in 1921, the honor belonging to Lynn Frazier of North Dakota, stemming from a dispute over state owned industries.

In our own state of California the process of recall was enacted in 1911, thanks to a movement by Republican Governor Hiram Johnson as part of a Progressive Era reforms that occurred throughout the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From that time until now, there have been over 118 attempts at recalling State Officials. Since Ronald Reagan in 1968, every governor in California has been the subject of a recall effort. (I’m reminded of the line in Back To The Future, when Doc Brown asks Marty McFly who the current president is. When he replies “Ronald Reagan”, Doc’s shocked response is “the actor?”)

Every governor was subject to a recall effort, some more than once, but it wasn’t until 2003 that Gray Davis was removed from the Governor’s office and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger (the actor?) aka The Terminator. Gray Davis had survived a recall effort in 1999, but in 2003, partly due to his decision to block the enactment of Proposition 187 ( denial of non-emergency medical services, education and other government services to illegal immigrants in the state). Prop 187 had been approved overwhelmingly by voters, and almost immediately challenged and ruled unconstitutional by a federal district court. Gray Davis made the decision to not appeal the case to the US Supreme Court, which ended up killing the ballot measure.

As if that wasn’t enough to infuriate voters, Davis was involved in the California Energy Crisis, where the state suffered ongoing rolling blackouts, and a shortage of electricity due to market manipulation (anybody remember the Enron scandal?) causing Pacific Gas and Electric (one of the state’s largest electricity companies) to collapse, declaring bankruptcy and near bankruptcy of Southern California Edison. When it’s hot, near draught conditions are prevailing, and blackouts prevent people from turning on their air conditioners, it’s easy to see why they are unhappy with the governor associated with the problem. The answer for most voters was to recall Davis, making him the first California governor to be successfully recalled.

More recently, Governor Gavin Newsom avoided being recalled in a special election held in 2022. We at Orange County Bail Bonds are hoping that George Gascon will not have the same success, that he will be recalled, and the bail bond industry will stay alive in California, allowing us to help the public stay safe.

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