This week, millions in California voted in support of Governor Gavin Newsom in a recall election. California is one of 19 states that grants power to voters to recall a sitting governor, a law which was passed in 1911 as part of a wider swath of Progressive-era reforms meant to bolster direct participation in government.
A 2013 article by Glen Gendzel examines the political context of California's early 20th century reforms, finding that the laws led to unexpected results for progressive politicians.
From the article:
"In October 1911, California voters approved the initiative, referendum, and recall amendments by a three-to-one margin. They also approved women’s suffrage, railroad regulation, workmen’s compensation, and a raft of other progressive reforms in the same election. No less than twenty-two amendments to the state constitution passed all at once. Conservatives predicted that disaster would ensue from the passage of “freak legislation” in California. Business was expected to flee the state, investors to pull out their funds, and home-seekers to look elsewhere. In fact, however, the progressive revolution of 1911 ushered in two decades of rapid growth and prosperity such as the state had not seen since the Gold Rush.
Nonetheless, there were some early indications that direct democracy might not serve the ends that Governor Johnson and the progressives originally had in mind. For example, the first successful state recall elections in 1913 and 1914, using this tool of progressive politics, removed two progressive legislators from office. In 1915, the first statewide referendum, using another progressive electoral tool, repealed a key progressive law, backed by Governor Johnson, which would have made all state elections non-partisan. The progressive legislature then passed an open primary law, which would at least encourage non-partisanship, but state party leaders forced another referendum on this law in 1916, and the voters rejected it, too. These early uses of the recall and the referendum – to expel progressive legislators and to repeal progressive electoral reforms – did not bode well for progressive hopes for direct democracy."