Everything you wanted to know about the recall process but were too afraid (or busy) to ask
on May 14, 2012
The efforts to recall Mayor Jean Quan have been fraught with controversy and confusion. For almost six months, at least four groups spearheaded two independent signature gathering campaigns to remove the mayor from office before her term ends. After heated debates and political tensions, today marks the deadline for the first of the signature gathering efforts. The second group, the Committee to Recall Quan Now, must submit almost 20,000 voters’ signatures to the city clerk’s office by July 2. If either group fulfills this requirement, Oakland would hold an election in which voters would decide whether Quan should continue her term and, if she were recalled, who should be her successor.
To determine how the recall process works, Oakland North reviewed its history and interviewed members of the recall groups, as well as election experts and officials, including City Attorney Barbara Parker and Alameda County’s Deputy Registrar of Voters Cynthia Cornejo. The results are summarized in five sections, which should help voters better understand this complex legal provision and appreciate its possible outcomes.
Several groups and people have joined the recall efforts but only two petitions were actually registered at Oakland City Hall.
In December 2011, a group lead by Gene Hazzard, a member of Oakland’s Black Caucus, created the Committee to Recall Jean Quan. The city clerk’s office approved the group’s petition that same month. This petition is commonly known among Oakland politicos as the “Hazzard petition.” Two groups joined forces with Hazzard to gather signatures for the petition: the Recall Jean Quan and Restore Oakland Committee, which dropped out of the recall effort this March, and the Oakland Coalition for Justice, lead by former mayoral candidate Terrence Candell.
Candell recently said his group will also stop gathering signatures and will not submit the ones it has gathered so far. In an email to Oakland North, he wrote that his group made the decision after Councilmember Ignacio de la Fuente (District 5) and former mayoral candidate Joe Tuman announced they would run for mayor in case of a recall election. “We did not want our city going from extremely bad to worse,” Candell wrote. “That is why we called it off.”
The group supporting the Hazzard petition has until today, May 14, to collect the signatures of at least 10 percent of Oakland’s registered voters. Candell said that without his group’s signatures, he believes the Hazzard petition cannot garner enough signatures by the deadline.
One month after the Hazzard petition started circulating across Oakland, the city clerk’s office approved a second recall petition. This one was submitted by the Committee to Recall Mayor Quan Now. One of the group’s members is Greg Harland, also a 2010 mayoral candidate. However, Frank Castro, one of the committee members, said Harlan is not the leader of the committee. He added that the committee was not created to support any particular mayoral candidacy. “Our sole goal is to get the election scheduled,” Castro said. “That’s it. No one in our committee is running for mayor and we are not supporting anybody.”
The Committee to Recall Mayor Quan Now continues to gather signatures—they, too, must obtain them from at least 10 percent of the city’s registered voters—and must submit them to the city clerk by July 2. Castro said that, despite what some news organizations have reported, the recall efforts have not died down. “We’re doing great,” he said. “Ours is going as strong as we could possible hope for.”
Recall is not new to Oakland, but the city hasn’t held a recall election in the last 20 years.
A heated political clash broke out in Oakland during the summer of 1912. Then-Mayor Frank K. Mott denied members of the National Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World permission to rally in the streets of Oakland because of the “subversive nature” of their speeches, according to the book The Recall of Public Officers: A Study of the Operation of the Recall in California, written by political scientists Frederick L. Bird and Frances M. Ryan in 1930. Supporters and members of both organizations filed a petition to recall Mott and one of his commissioners. That led to the first recall election in Oakland’s history, held on August 5, 1912. Despite the effort to kick Mott out of office, the mayor, who received the support of local business leaders, achieved an “overwhelming” victory in the election, according to Bird and Ryan.
The results of the 1912 election didn’t discourage Oakland citizens from trying to recall other city officials. “The recall in Oakland seems to have become a part of the established political technique,” Bird and Ryan wrote. Recall petitions were circulated once every few months, but only a few complied with city charter requirements and made it to the ballots. Most of them sought to remove incumbent mayors and city commissioners for alleged corruption, abuses of power and administrative incompetence.
In December of 1917, Oakland held an election to recall then-Mayor John L. Davie. Citizens who demanded his removal from office argued in their petitions, described by Bird and Ryan, that Davie “kept Oakland in constant turmoil,” led a luxurious life (a $3,000 car and an $85 chair are given as examples of his excesses) and that “his actions made Oakland appear ridiculous.” Once again, voters favored the mayor with 23,176 votes against 9,169. The authors wrote that after another unsuccessful recall election in 1928 against a city commissioner who allegedly allowed illegal “opium dens” operate in the city, efforts to recall officials declined.
The Alameda County Registrar of Voters’ Office contains no record of a recent recall election in the city, according to the county’s Deputy Registrar of Voters Cynthia Cornejo. Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker said Oakland hasn’t held a recall election in at least 20 years. “I can say definitely not,” she said. “I’ve been here that long, since 1991.”
Under California law, any registered voter can demand the recall of any elected official for any reason.
Oakland’s City Charter states that citizens can exercise their power to recall city officials through the provisions established in the California Constitution and the California Elections Code. Article II of the California Constitution defines recall as “the power of the electors to remove an elective officer.” Under state law, citizens can demand the recall of all elected officials in the state, its counties, cities, school districts, county boards of education, community college districts, special districts, and judges of courts of appeal and trial courts. Only registered voters can initiate a recall petition of an official working within their jurisdiction.
Incumbents cannot be recalled if they haven’t been in office for more than 90 days, if they were elected as a result of the recall of another official within the previous six months, or if their term ends within the same period. Federal elected officials are not subject to recall.
Citizens who seek to remove someone from office must file a notice of intention to the pertinent election authority, which, in the case of Oakland, is the city clerk. The notice must explain the reasons for the recall in 200 words. The California Constitution states that “sufficiency of reason is not reviewable.” In other words, no authority can legally challenge a citizen’s rationale for removing a government official.
Max Neiman, senior research fellow at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, said California is one of the few states that allow such latitude. People could argue that something as trivial as serving as a bad example to children is a reason for a recall, he said. “In other states you have to give legal reasons, and in some cases you can only recall people who have broken the law,” he said.
California passed its recall law in 1911 as a way to stop corruption among state and city officials and undue influence of businesses in government decisions, according to the article “Recall in California” published by the UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies in 2003. According to the article, “proponents favored the recall amendment as another mechanism to fight graft and corruption in government. Opponents criticized it as a device that extremists and malcontents would employ to harass and remove honest officials.” Neiman said this debate continues to resonate among citizens and politicians.
Recall is frequently used in California cities, Neiman said, but not necessarily to fight corruption and nepotism. “There have been many cases,” he said, “especially at the local level, in which people recall officials in the school district or the water district because they disagree with their decisions or people believe [officials] are unresponsive to their demands.” This form of recall can have negative consequences in the long run. “Politicians could be reluctant to make bold or long-term decisions because they could be unpopular,” Neiman said, “so they concentrate their efforts on short political actions.”
Despite this drawback, Neiman said recall is a necessary democratic tool to stop illegal behavior and corruption in government. He adds that even if the reasons to demand a recall are not subject to review, they ultimately have to be convincing enough to persuade voters. “If you falsely accuse someone of doing something outrageous, it can seriously undermine the recall campaign,” he said. “It wouldn’t help get the voter’s support.”
David Schecter, a researcher in the political science department at California State University at Fresno, agrees, arguing that even if recall efforts are prompted by elite or politically motivated groups, the success of the elections relies on the voters. “Citizens are ultimately involved in their right of removal by voting at the ballot box,” he wrote in an article published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy in 2008.
Signatures are needed to turn a recall petition into a ballot item
Writing a list of reasons to remove an official from office is not enough to initiate a recall petition. A notice of intention must be signed by 50 registered voters—the same number required to file a nomination petition during a regular election. The document must be filed at the city clerk’s office along with two copies of the petition (the document voters will be asked to sign). With seven days, a copy of the notice must be sent by certified mail or personally delivered to the official targeted for removal. Recall proponents must publish their notice in a local or major news publication and submit a proof of publication to the city clerk. Officials have the right, but are not required, to send a signed response to one of the recall proponents as well as to the general public.
In Oakland, once the proponents submit the required documents and the documents are deemed proper, they need to collect the signatures of at least 10 percent of Oakland’s registered voters for the city to schedule a recall election. Currently, that means they must get 19,811 valid signatures.
They have 160 days to gather all the signatures and file the petitions at the city clerk’s office, who in turn has 30 days to verify the authenticity of the signatures. The clerk must do this by taking a random sample of 1,000 signatures (5 percent of the required signatures) and comparing them to the ones contained in Alameda County’s registered voters’ database, along with the person’s name and current address. If all of the signatures in the random sample are authentic, the petition will be certified. If some of the signatures fail to pass the test, the clerk must verify all the filed signatures. He or she can request the assistance of the Alameda County Registrar of Voters to complete this process.
If the proponents fail to meet the required number of authentic signatures, they must start the recall process all over again. They are not allowed to canvas for additional signatures. In “A Public Guide to Recall,” a online guide for Alameda County’s citizens written by Dave Macdonald, the county’s Registrar of Voters, Macdonald recommends that petitioners to gather more signatures than are needed as a “cushion to allow for invalid signatures by including extra signatures above and beyond the minimum needed to qualify the petition.”
The day of the recall election determines its cost
If a recall petition passes the signature verification test, the city clerk will submit to the city council a certificate of sufficiency, confirming that the recall petition is valid. The city council would have to certify the document during its next regular meeting. They have 14 days after that day to call a recall election. The date of the election must not be earlier than 88 days or later than 125 days from the day of the voting.
One of the groups that seek to recall Mayor Quan filed its petition on December 7, 2011, and has until May 14 to gather and file the required 19,811 signatures. If it complies with this requirement, the recall election must be set between October 5 and November 12. The second group, which filed its petition on January 24, has a July 2 deadline to file signatures. If the signatures pass the verification test, the election would be set between November 24 and December 31.
Under state law, the city council has the choice to include the recall in a regular election, in this case, on November 6. “It all depends on the date the groups file their signatures,” City Attorney Barbara Parker said. “If all fall into the time frame, it is most likely that the recall election would be consolidated in the November election.” But she adds, “The council is not required to do this.”
Castro said that although the signature filing deadline for The Committee to Recall Mayor Quan Now might not coincide with the November 6 election, the state laws still allow the integration of recall election into the regular elections. “It depends on the city clerk, registrar of voters and the city council,” he said. “We will be pressing the city council to do this after our signatures are turned in.”‘
Cornejo said if the recall is included in the November election, the total cost would be approximately $3 to $5 per registered voter. “There could be some additional costs of turn-out processing, but they are speculative,” she said. “We still don’t have exact figures.”
If the recall election is scheduled as a special election on a different date, it could cost $6 to $7 per registered voter, as the city would have to pay for separate election materials and staff salaries not previously considered on the city budget.
Most rules of a mayoral campaign apply in a recall campaign
In a recall election, voters decide not only whether to remove an official from office but also who the successor will be. Oakland citizens can file a nomination petition to run for office. They must be signed by 50 registered voters. The nomination period starts the day after the election is called. “Voters would know who is running for office before the election day, just like in a regular election,” Parker said. Under state law, the public information requirements for regular elections are the same for a recall election. This means reports of campaign contributions for candidates and the incumbent must be filed to the city clerk’s office to be available as public records.
The recall ballot would contain two questions, one asking voters if they want to recall the mayor, the other presenting a list of potential candidates to succeed her. The format and the language would be similar to those used during the recall election of California’s former governor Gray Davis in 2003, Parker said. “Since Oakland follows the state elections code, we would be following the same process,” she said. Since the mayor cannot run against herself, she cannot be included on the list of candidates, but she has the right to include her arguments against the recall on the ballot.
Mayor Quan would be recalled if a simple majority (50 percent plus 1 percent) of the voters choose to remove her. The incumbent’s successor would be elected by ranked choice voting, in which voters rank their chosen candidates from most favorite to least favorite, according to a legal opinion written by Parker on April 30, 2012 and published on the city attorney’s website. Oakland has used this method for the first time during the 2010 election in which Quan beat a field of ten contenders.
Note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Greg Harland’s last name.
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The name is Greg Harland, not Gene Harlan.