Why Does California Have Recall Elections?

The election that thrust Arnold Schwarzenegger into power in 2003 was the first time that many Americans heard of a recall. But they have a long history in the U.S.,

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Why does California have recall elections?

Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigning for governor in San Bernardino, Calif., during the 2003 recall election.
Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigning for governor in San Bernardino, Calif., during the 2003 recall election.Credit…Monica Almeida/The New York Times
  • Sept. 13, 2021Updated 12:21 p.m. ET

The high-profile election that thrust Arnold Schwarzenegger into power in 2003 was the first time that many Americans heard of a recall.

The idea that California voters could remove their governor from office before the end of his term — and replace him with a movie star — was unfamiliar, if not unbelievable.

But recalls have a long, storied history in the United States.

In 1776, after declaring independence from the British, some of the original 13 colonies wrote recall provisions into their state constitutions as a way to guard against the power of elected officials, said Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at Wagner College’s Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform. But the idea of the recall did not make it into the U.S. Constitution, and instead went into hibernation for more than a century.

“It took a Philadelphia-born doctor in Los Angeles to truly revive the recall,” Spivak writes in his book, “Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom.”

In 1898, a Los Angeles physician named John Randolph Haynes proposed adding a recall measure to the city’s charter as a way of rooting out corruption. Five years later, the city became one of the first places in the nation to adopt the recall.

In the seven years that followed, 25 other California cities passed similar measures, according to Mr. Spivak.

And in 1911, California voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure that made the state the third to allow recalls. Now, 110 years later, most states allow local officials to be recalled; 19, including California, allow the removal of state officials as well.

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