Opinion | California’s Impending Recall Election Is Unconstitutional

Opinion | California’s Impending Recall Election Is Unconstitutional

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After Chief Justice Earl Warren retired in 1969, he remarked that of all the cases decided during his time on the court, the one-person one-vote rulings were the most important because they protected such a fundamental aspect of the democratic process.

The California recall election, as structured, violates that fundamental principle. If Mr. Newsom is favored by a plurality of the voters, but someone else is elected, then his voters are denied equal protection. Their votes have less influence in determining the outcome of the election.

This should not be a close constitutional question. It is true that federal courts generally are reluctant to get involved in elections. But the Supreme Court has been emphatic that it is the role of the judiciary to protect the democratic process and the principle of one-person one-vote.

This issue was not raised in 2003 before the last recall, when Gray Davis was removed from office after receiving support from 44.6 percent of the voters. But his successor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was elected to replace him with 48.5 percent of the vote. So Mr. Schwarzenegger was properly elected.

This time, we hope that a state or federal lawsuit will be brought challenging the recall election. The court could declare the recall election procedure unconstitutional and leave it to California to devise a constitutional alternative. Or it could simply add Mr. Newsom’s name on the ballot to the list of those running to replace him. That simple change would treat his supporters equally to others and ensure that if he gets more votes than any other candidate, he will stay in office.

A court might not want to get involved until after the election, hoping that as in the last recall election, Mr. Newsom will not end up being replaced by a less popular candidate. But that would be unwise. Undoing an unconstitutional election after the fact would be considerably messier than fixing the process beforehand.

The stakes for California are enormous, not only for who guides us through our current crises — from the pandemic to drought, wildfires and homelessness — but also for how we choose future governors. The Constitution simply does not permit replacing a governor with a less popular candidate.

Erwin Chemerinsky is the dean of the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of the forthcoming book “Presumed Guilty: How the Supreme Court Empowered the Police and Subverted Civil Rights.” Aaron S. Edlin is a professor of law and of economics at Berkeley.


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