As California votes, it rethinks its tradition of direct democracy

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Recalls in California date back more than a century, to a series of reforms passed from 1910 to 1913 under Governor Hiram Johnson, a Republican and progressive crusader. They were the cornerstone of a years-long effort to curb the political power of the South Pacific Railroad, which practically owned the state government and economy, controlling politicians, judges and regulators.

Mr Johnson’s reforms broke hold, overhauled the state’s electoral system and, through a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1911, instituted the system of referendums, initiative votes and recall. Kevin Starr, a California historian who died in 2017, called it “the very recreation of California’s political and social order.”

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It’s often pointed out that Mr Johnson’s reforms – tools that were explicitly created to reduce the influence of big business over California politics – have now become a major weapon for business. This is especially true of initiatives, which can be put on the ballot with a few million dollars of workers holding clipboards collecting signatures from registered voters.

A recent example is Proposition 22, a $ 200 million initiative by ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft to prevent their drivers from being considered employees.

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“That’s the biggest problem here,” said Jim Newton, historian and public policy lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has written biographies of Governors Earl Warren and Jerry Brown.

“It’s not about whether Gavin Newsom gets 51% or whether we have Gov. Larry Elder. This is important, but the general premise that initiative, referendum and revocation are aimed at curbing the influence of powerful vested interests has been completely overturned and has now become the tool of vested interests.

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Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law expert and dean of the University of California, Berkeley Law School, argued that the state’s removal process is unconstitutional because the two-step nature of the process – with voters deciding whether or not to recall the incumbent governor. and then, separately, the choice of a replacement – allows a new governor to take office with less popular support than the old one.

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