It’s hard to imagine a better bargain than the recall option in our high-cost country. At an estimated cost of $ 276 million – $ 7 per Californian – our state has gone through months of democratic exercise that can inspire public investment, improve governor’s performance, and even save lives.
Insanely, many Californians (some of whom have the cheek to call themselves Democrats) insist on calling this Democratic triumph a waste of money. If they don’t want to look like hypocrites, they should reconsider the math of this choice and think deeper about the price of democracy.
Let’s start with the number: $ 276 million is almost nothing the size of a California state. This number corresponds to less than 1 percent of the current budget surplus and about a tenth of 1 percent of the total national budget. To put it in another context, the election cost $ 100 million less than the Dodgers pay their right fielder.
Still, media commentators falsely claim that the recall cost $ 300 million from schools or the homeless. The truth is just the opposite. The recall and the political pressure it put on the Democrats helped raise funds for core government services to historic heights.
And if lawmakers had another $ 300 million, they’d probably blow it on their own donors. That’s exactly what happened in July when the state wasted $ 330 million doubling ineffective tax credits for wealthy Hollywood producers.
The same politicians could have cut the cost of the recall by $ 60 million if they hadn’t postponed the election to September. But don’t worry about such hypocrisy, because even with the added cost, the recall was worth it.
It has never been more sensible to spend more on elections than now. The California electoral system is making a historic transition to postal ballot papers and voting centers that has so far been successful as voter turnout has increased. But this progress is fragile because of the increasing attacks on democracy and on our electoral officials.
More than 80 percent of the $ 276 million cost of recall goes to the same district election officials – who, while conducting the recall elections, reinforced the new electoral infrastructure, found new ways to attract voters, and protected themselves and their elections from threats. The state uses the remainder of the money (over $ 30 million) to create voter guides in the Californian languages, for example.
Think of the cost of recall as money spent on infrastructure – democratic infrastructure. And instead of complaining about it, think about how much more we could invest in it. If we are serious about saving democracy, we should fund a robust citizen participation bureau in every California community and develop better information resources for citizens, especially on electoral activities.
More people, who pay more attention to democracy, can change things.
Just look at the dramatic transformation of Newsom, who was fidgeting and unfocused – until the recall efforts took off. Then Newsom made staff changes and fought his bad habit of forming working groups and commissions (he ever had a “task force” on oxygen) rather than acting directly.
Under threat of recall, he turned around and urged schools to reopen, replaced an ineffective corporate loan program with grants and tossed the confusing COVID color grading system on its head. Newsom also moved to close down homeless camps. And his Memorial Year budget has made too many historical investments – from transitional kindergarten to college scholarships – to list here.
In this context, Newsom’s landslide victory doesn’t mean the election was unnecessary. On the contrary, the result of the recall was support for more aggressive government action, particularly on life-saving vaccinations.
Now all the Californians have to do is make Newsom – who is prone to distraction – angry, vulnerable, and nervous like he was during the recall. If he gets complacent, a middle-class Californian may qualify for another recall to improve the governor’s focus – and give us another opportunity to spend more millions on our democracy.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.