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Gray Davis Reflects On His Recall, As Californians Decide Gov. Newsom's Fate


We're turning to another big political fight now, one that's specific to California but still being watched around the country. On Tuesday, California voters will head to the polls to decide if Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom should be recalled from office. It's the second time in the state's history that residents will vote to remove a sitting governor. The first was in 2003, when then Governor Gray Davis was successfully recalled only months after he was re-elected to a second term and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then, as now, critics say the process is presented as democratic but is actually the opposite - too easy to start, too confusing to voters and too beholden to special interests.

Governor Davis is one of those critics. He says California's recall system is unfair because the ballot asks first if the governor should be recalled and second, who should take their place. If the governor doesn't get more than half the votes, then another candidate wins, even if that candidate wins fewer votes overall.

GRAY DAVIS: I do think there's a fundamental unfairness because as you inferred, this is a game of Russian roulette. And while this time, I believe that Governor Newsom will win and win by five to 10 points, at some point, a governor will get 49% of the vote. The winner on No. 2 will get 38% of the vote, and the person with 38% of the vote will become governor. And that is just fundamentally unfair. And so I've suggested that policymakers going forward to - considering doing this. When there's a recall, OK, you have an unscheduled gubernatorial election. Just let everyone run on the same ballot. The governor runs, and everyone else runs. Whoever gets the most votes wins. If the governor doesn't get the most votes, he's automatically recalled. If he gets the most votes, he can finish out his term.

MARTIN: Well, to that end, though, we should mention that recall attempts are common. Every California governor since 1960 has faced one, but this is only the second time that it's actually led to an election. So what do you say to people who say, well, you know what? The system's fine since recall attempts are common, but success is rare, so obviously something works OK.

DAVIS: Going forward, I think with the advent of technology, it's so much easier to get the signatures than in 1911. I don't even know if we had telephones in 1911. We certainly didn't have the internet. We didn't have social media. So it's infinitely easier to do that. But I'm not really worried about, you know, how many signatures you have to get to qualify it. I'm not against toughening up those requirements a little bit, given the ease with which technology allows you to gather the signatures today compared to 1911.

MARTIN: It just seems that this is a moment in which people are starting to look again at the processes of elections and of government. Obviously, you know, one of the big national stories is the moves by mainly - not exclusively, but mainly - Republican legislators to tighten access to the processes of voting - requiring more ID requirements, restricting others, you know, cutting down the number of days that people can vote, et cetera. That's a big sort of national story. I just wonder, is there an appetite, you think, among the public to think about this and to think about if this is really what they want? Because it just - on the one hand, the mechanics of voting is kind of like, I don't know, the mechanics of anything else. Like, most people don't want to tinker under the hood. They just want to drive the car. So is there - do you sense an appetite after, like, all this is going on for people to think about do they really want this?

DAVIS: The whole vetting process is truncated. Again, you're not even aware there's a recall until the secretary of state certifies that the necessary signatures were gathered. So that's the first time you know that there is going to be an election. Then the candidates have five days to file, and the election is no more than 80 days after that. So there's no time for discussion. A normal election - there's a primary in June. We're going to have a primary next June, in 2022, for governor. You know, newspapers, the media, labor unions, environmentalists, business groups - everyone weighs in. There's questionnaires to answer. There's a much broader, more vibrant, robust discussion about the candidates, their merits and demerits. None of that happens in any significant way. This is like a shotgun marriage. This is sprint, not a 440-yard race or a mile race.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I know you said you don't want to complain about it. There's - you know, that's the brakes and that you're stoic, and I appreciate that. But I am curious. Like, what does that feel like? I mean, you go through all that in a campaign, and then you got - like, you were reelected. You're elected, and then you're reelected, and then what? A couple of weeks later, then you're facing - I just can't help but wonder, like, what's that like? Do you feel like...

DAVIS: Look; it's not any fun. I don't think anyone - you talk to Governor Newsom, I'm sure he would not telling you - tell you he's having the time of his life. You know, he's trying to do his day job. And by the way, I think of all the major states, we've done a much better job about putting vaccine in people's arms. We - Texas has got twice as many infections over the last 14 days. And Florida has three times as much. And they're the second- and third-largest state after California. So he's done a good job in the merits, but he also has to campaign. So he's doing double duty, and he's going to prevail in my judgment.

But at some point, the governor will not prevail because he or she will fall below 50% but still get more votes than the second question on the ballot, which is OK, fine, who will succeed the governor? So by eliminating Question 1 - No. 1, the recall question, just having an election and saying this is a recall election; if the governor doesn't get the most votes, he will be - he or she will be recalled. And whoever gets the most votes will take office as governor. Just - that's the only question before people. There'll be less confusion. It will be clearer. People will know what the stakes are.

MARTIN: That is former California governor Gray Davis. Governor Davis, thank you so much for talking with us.

DAVIS: My pleasure, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.