What Chesa Boudin Revealed About an Undemocratic Election System

Recall efforts are a symptom of a deeper political disease.

A sign reading "polling place" with an arrow pointing toward a row of steps
David Paul Morris / Bloomberg / Getty

About the author: Annie Lowrey is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

This week, San Francisco voters recalled Chesa Boudin, the city’s district attorney and the face of the nationwide progressive-prosecutors movement. The election, widely described as a referendum on crime and disorder and a backlash against the Democratic Party’s leftmost edge, was a caustic local fight played out on a national stage. It was democracy at work, with the public ousting a leader they considered incompetent or unfitting.

It was also part of an underrecognized national trend: a boom in recall efforts across the country, targeting all kinds of officials, of all political stripes. That recall surge is due in no small part to voter anger at incumbent politicians and everything else. Yet it is also a symptom of a long-standing political disease. Especially at the state and local levels, Americans are asked to vote in many complicated and oddly timed elections—ones more or less designed so that the masses do not show up. Ironically, making recalls harder to stage and less frequent—and getting low-propensity voters to say their piece in regular elections—might make our democracy more democratic, not less.

Boudin’s recall was a prototypical example of San Francisco’s unique knife-fight-in-a-phone-booth politics and an expression of local anger at local issues, among them a surge in hate crimes against Asian people and home break-ins. Yet the vote was not unique: The number of attempted recalls more than doubled from 2019 to 2021, according to a tally performed by Ballotpedia, hitting the highest level since the group began tracking them. That has not translated into a surge in successful recalls, at least not yet. Nationwide, voters removed just 25 officials from office in 2021; 19 more officials resigned while facing a recall attempt. Nevertheless, the boom is real.

Voters seem to be eager to kick out incumbents, ticked off about COVID, inflation, gun violence, spiraling rents, and countless other factors. A new Wall Street Journal/NORC poll, for instance, found that 83 percent of voters see the economy as “poor or not so good,” the highest level of dissatisfaction in five decades, and political approval ratings are down across the board. Anger is translating into electoral churn. In places that have held primaries thus far this year, incumbents in state legislatures have lost at the highest rate in nearly a decade, and many members of Congress are opting to retire rather than run.

“Dissatisfaction is the key” when it comes to recalls, says Joshua Spivak, the author of a book on recall elections and a senior research fellow at Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center. “There’s this voter anger that’s really fueling stuff.” In recent years, school-board officials have been a common target around the country and have made up a large share of the recall surge. In San Francisco, voters this year recalled three members of the school board, amid parental dissatisfaction with COVID policies and controversy over plans to rename schools. Similarly divisive, high-profile campaigns—in some cases spurred in part by inchoate conservative concern over critical-race theory—occurred in Virginia’s Loudoun County (quashed by a local judge last month) and suburban Milwaukee (failed at the ballot).

The sheer amount of cash available for political campaigns—as grassroots small-dollar and oligarchic big-dollar spending both increase—might be one more factor in the recall boom. So might the intensely partisan climate, with local races becoming wrapped up in national issues. So might the ease of publicizing such campaigns on social media, Spivak notes.

Angst alone, of course, is not enough to trigger a recall. It takes organization and money, resources that political activists seem to have become more interested in providing of late. Most recalls are the expression of intraparty policy conflict, not interparty political conflict, Spivak says. Democrats collected the signatures to recall Boudin, and a Democrat will appoint Boudin’s temporary replacement. Nevertheless, recalls offer an opportunity for activists in one party or one ideological faction to knock out a rival politician—and give them better odds than in a general election. The math is straightforward: A cause with 100 committed partisans might get crushed in an election of 1,000 people, but cruise to victory if only 250 bother to vote. With low-turnout elections, “you have this potential for groups and individuals with a large stake in a single election outcome to play a much bigger role,” says Sarah Anzia, a UC Berkeley political scientist who has studied election timing.

The attempted recall of California Governor Gavin Newsom last year exemplifies this phenomenon better than Boudin’s removal does. I would describe the attempt on Newsom as quixotic. Yet it had a chance of succeeding if turnout had been low enough, taking the governorship away from a well-liked professional who won 7.7 million votes and handing it to, basically, a guy—a member of a Republican Party that does not currently hold a single statewide office in California and did not even back him in his race. It did not succeed, and turnout was surprisingly strong, only because Democrats ended up calling in Barack Obama and Kamala Harris, among other figures, to whip up the vote, wasting everyone’s money and energy and time.

San Francisco voters’ recalls of Boudin and the school-board members at least had broad public support in polls. In both cases, more people voted to recall the officials than voted to put them into their positions in the first place. Nevertheless, in neither election will turnout hit 50 percent, after 86 percent of San Franciscans voted in the 2020 general election. And in neither case did the activists pushing the recalls have evidence of fraud, neglect, criminal behavior, or gross incompetence—as is standard in many places.

Voters just did not like what the officials were doing. But there’s already a way for the people to unseat politicians whose policy choices they do not like—during normal elections, ones that do not cost the city millions of dollars to stage, at which more of their neighbors will show up, and that do not increase the chance of a weird political spoiler drummed up by political cynics hoping for low turnout. Recalls are a cornerstone of California’s participatory democracy and a voter check on the executive. But they are also a way that smallish numbers of highly motivated partisans tax the resources and suffocate the desires of the broader, quieter, more diverse, and less-moneyed public.

If more recalls end up succeeding across the country, fueling more recall efforts, the overall effect would be troubling. Already, American voters vote for too many positions, too often, in elections that are too hard to vote in and are held at inconvenient times. The policy solutions are straightforward: Limit recalls, have fewer issues and officials on the ballot, move to nonpartisan primaries and ranked-choice voting, push for independent redistricting, and hold local elections at the same time as presidential elections and the midterms. Make it easy to vote. And make sure officials come in with the support of a broad group of people, and protect them from getting ousted by a small, motivated minority. A little less democracy might be good for democracy, after all.