The recall campaign appears likely to qualify for the ballot. At the same time, Gascon’s poll numbers are dropping and support for the recall is surging. But the rules of the recall vote mean that Los Angeles may end up right where it started. If too many mainstream candidates run and split the vote, Gascon’s replacement may be just as radical.
The Recall Has Gathered Enough Signatures as Gascon’s Poll Numbers Have Dropped
Leaders of the effort to recall Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon are saying privately that they have gathered over 700,000 signatures in support of a recall. They need 566,857 in order to put the recall on the ballot. The additional signatures will serve as a cushion when some of the signatures are inevitably invalidated by the Registrar. The campaign has exceeded their stated goal of collecting 650,000 – 700,000 signatures.
Both recall supporters and Gascon supporters are privately saying that they do not expect him to survive the recall. Gascon is the political mentor of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who was recalled earlier this summer. The landslide recall of Boudin happened in San Francisco, which is more liberal than Los Angeles County. The implication for Gascon is that the landslide to oust him will be even larger than Boudin’s.
This is backed up by bad polling for Gascon. A July 28, 2021 poll showed that 34% had an unfavorable impression of Gascon, while only 17% had a favorable impression. 40% disapproved of his performance and only 25% approved. Crucially, 55% of those surveyed would vote to recall Gascon while only 23 % would vote to keep him. Only 13 % were unsure. These conclusions have been reinforced by subsequent polls. In June, a poll of liberal Long Beach found that 45% of voters back the recall and 27% oppose it. Repeated polls, such as a poll commissioned by the Los Angeles Police Protective League, show Gascon’s support deteriorating: a plurality of voters now support recalling him.
The Winner of a Plurality of Votes, Not a Majority of Votes, Would Replace Gascon
Article II of the California Constitution allows voters to recall and remove elected officials. The process began when the recall campaign filed a Notice of Intent to Recall, which was approved by the County Registrar. Then they began gathering signatures. If the recall effort has gathered enough signatures then the recall will appear on the ballot. After that, according to the University of California’s Institute for Governmental Studies:
The recall ballot has two components: a yes or no vote for recall, and the names of replacement candidates, selected by the nomination process used in regular elections. The recall measure itself is successful if it passes by a majority. In that case, the replacement candidate with a simple plurality of votes wins the office. If the recall measure fails, the replacement candidate votes are ignored.
This is the crucial point: if the recall is successful, the next LA DA will be the winner of the plurality of votes. There is no run off. If there are 10 candidates, the next DA could win with a tiny plurality, say, 20% of the vote.
Many Mainstream Candidates Have Expressed Interest In Running to Replace Gascon
It seems like everyone wants to replace George Gascon. The most visible candidate is Jon Hatami, a veteran prosecutor who successfully prosecuted the killers of Gabriel Fernandez. Hatami appeared in a Netflix special about the Fernandez, an eight-year-old who was tortured and murdered by his mother and her boyfriend. Hatami has actively campaigned against Gascon for months, and was profiled in LA Magazine as a probable replacement, complete with this illustration:
John McKinney, another veteran prosecutor, also appears to be running. McKinney is assigned to the LADA’s prestigious Major Crimes Division. He is active on social media and is pushing an alternative to progressive prosecution that he calls “Proportional Justice.” Like Hatami, he frequently appears on television to promote the recall.
Eric Siddall is Vice-President of the union representing Los Angeles Prosecutors. This group, made up of George Gascon’s employees, voted 98% to 2% in favor of the recall. Siddall has also frequently appeared on local media in support of the recall effort. He advocates for “responsible and sustainable reform.”
Other names being floated to replace Gascon are John Lewin and Steve Cooley. Lewin is a legend in the LADA’s office, famous for his successful cold-case prosecutions. Like McKinney, he works at the Major Crimes Division. He recently convicted Robert Durst, subject of HBO’s The Jinx. He was also profiled in Los Angeles Magazine as “The King of Cold Cases.” Steve Cooley has already served as LA DA and is talking about coming out of retirement. He unsuccessfully ran for California Attorney General as a Republican, but could not even win his own county.
The “Progressive Prosecutor” Movement is Still Alive and Well
Although there are many mainstream candidates interested in replacing Gascon, the movement that got Gascon elected his not gone away, even if they have lost momentum. The media’s reaction to the successful recall of SFDA Chesa Boudin made this glaringly obvious. The voter’s repudiation of Boudin, they said, wasn’t what it looked like. He was unfairly blamed for an environment outside of his control, sandbagged by the SFPD, or a victim of voters manipulated by fear-mongering. Meanwhile, progressive prosecutors like Larry Krasner, the District Attorney of Philadelphia, cruised to reelection without a problem.
This movement will put a candidate on the ballot if Gascon is recalled. There are many liberal candidates who have been described as “woke” or “progressive prosecutors” that want the job. For example, Rachel Rossi ran for LADA in 2020. She did not make the runoff, but still received 23% of the vote. There is nothing preventing her from running again as a replacement for Gascon.
Imagine a hypothetical. The voters, in line with recent poll numbers, vote to recall Gascon. The five candidates listed above appear on the ballot as replacements for Gascon. So does Rachel Rossi, repeating her 2020 effort to become LADA. The voters overwhelmingly prefer the mainstream candidates, and give them a total of 60% of the vote. In other words, each receives about 12%. Meanwhile, voters give the progressive prosecutor movement 40%, far less than the votes received by the mainstream. However, there is only one candidate for these votes to go to. Rachel Rossi receives 40% of the vote, trouncing her nearest mainstream rival. The overwhelming desire of the voters is frustrated. LA does not get rid of the radical ideas that led to the recall effort in the first place. Because of vote-splitting, LA ends up right back where it started.
Vote Splitting is Real
This is not a far-fetched prediction. Vote splitting is an electoral effect in which the distribution of votes among multiple similar candidates reduces the chance of winning for any of the similar candidates, and increases the chance of winning for a dissimilar candidate. Vote splitting occurs most easily in plurality voting, the type of voting applicable to Gascon’s recall.
Vote splitting has happened before. The most famous example is the support Ralph Nader took from Al Gore, allowing George W. Bush to win the presidency. But it has also happened in California, when voters recalled Governor Gray Davis. There were 135 replacement candidates, including actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Concerns about vote splitting caused the Democratic Party to withdraw all but one of their major candidates. The Republicans withdrew most of their candidates as well. 61% of voters wanted the recall. Schwarzenegger and another Republican received 63% of the vote, but split it between themselves. Schwarzenegger was still able to beat the Democrat, who received 31% of the vote.
What should really drive this point home are the results of the March 2020 election for LADA. In that primary election, mainstream candidate Jackie Lacey received 48% of the vote. Progressive candidates George Gascon and Rachel Rossi split the progressive vote 28% to 23% respectively. Had that been a recall, Lacey would have won outright. Because it wasn’t, Rossi’s voters went to Gascon, and Gascon went on to win. Recent experience suggests, therefore, that vote splitting in the LADA race really matters.
If recall supporters are serious about returning the LADA’s office to moderates, they should get serious about vote splitting. Even two candidates may be too many. Otherwise, they will watch all their efforts go down the drain.