Recall Me, Maybe? Gavin Newsom and California’s Second Gubernatorial Recall Election

First, they said a gubernatorial recall election was an alt-right pipe dream and a recall election couldn’t happen. Then they said it was a publicity stunt paid for by right-wing dark money groups, and a petition wouldn’t even get enough signatures to qualify for a recall election. Then they laughed and said there was no way all of the petition signatures collected were real. Then they said nobody would agree on a date for the recall. 

On August 14, the first batch of vote by mail ballots were mailed out to California’s voters. So much for what “they” said, folks. A recall election is happening on Tuesday, September 14th, and it’s going to be an ugly battle to the finish. In fact, this makes the 2003 recall of former Governor Gray Davis look like a birthday party at the French Laundry. Will Governor Gavin Newsom survive the onslaught? Are there as many candidates on the ballot as there were in 2003? And perhaps most importantly, why did this recall effort get as far as it did in a heavily Democratic state? I’ll be addressing all those questions right after a quick breakdown of how the recall process works in California. Additionally, I’ll be kicking a couple of hornet nests in the pursuit of properly conducted election processes for all of California’s voters, not just the politically expedient ones. This ain’t your mama’s recall, folks. 

Like, Totally Recalled: How Do Recalls Work in California?

Recalls in California are a shining example of direct democracy rushing in where angels fear to tread. According to CALMatters, any registered voter in the state of California can start a petition and begin collecting the signatures needed to place the recall election on the ballot. If that seems overly simple, it’s worth remembering that the state recall process was added to the California constitution in 1911, or 110 years ago. And it’s quite possibly the only part of California’s Gordian rat’s nest of a constitution that isn’t a convoluted snarl of bureaucratic and legislative intent. All a petitioner needs are 12% of the voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election, and residents must live in a minimum five counties out of California’s 58. There is no requirement that the cumulative total of signatures must be from larger or smaller counties. As soon as signatures are collected, they get turned over to local election officials, and submitted to the Secretary of State to verify the signatures are all from eligible CA voters. Once the deadline for collection has passed, voters must be given the chance to withdraw their signature, if desired. 

The Secretary of State then determines the projected costs of the recall, sends the figures to the state Legislature for review, and following the review period, sets a date for the election for the first Tuesday 60 to 80 days from the deadline for signature collection. Anybody can declare their candidacy, pay the filing fee, and gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. (When I say anyone, I do mean anyone. The last gubernatorial recall in 2003 had 247 people declare their candidacy, and 135 of them actually made the ballot.) Post-ballot qualification, the Secretary of State determines the order of candidates on the final ballot, approves county ballot design, and prepares for the electoral onslaught. Ballots are proofed, printed, and mailed out to all 22 million registered voters in the state. Voters have two sections on the ballot to complete: The first section asks if the governor should be recalled, and will have YES/NO bubbles for a voter to fill in. A YES vote means the governor is recalled; a NO vote means the governor remains in office. 

The next part of the ballot gives voters the list of potential replacement candidates to choose from if the total number of YES votes from the first section of the ballot hits 50%+ one vote. The candidate with the highest total of votes in the second section becomes the governor. It doesn’t matter whether the candidate gets 20% of the votes or 90%. As long as they have the majority, they’re the new governor. 

What happens if the NO votes exceed 50%? The current governor stays in office, and the votes in the second section become a moot point, although a breakdown of the totals could be valuable datasets for parties, pollsters and mappers going into the 2022 election. 

There has been a great deal of confusion regarding who can select a candidate in the second section of the ballot, and I’m going to make this as clear as I can. Even if a voter chooses NO on the recall question, they are still entitled to vote for any candidate they wish for the second question! It will not void their ballot, and their choice for a replacement candidate will be totaled along with everyone else’s choices.

While Gavin Newsom and many other prominent Democrats have spent a lot of energy begging voters to leave the second question blank, that might be because they want voters to think they don’t get a say in selecting the next governor in case the recall passes. I don’t like to throw the term “voter suppression” around lightly, but the idea of a sitting governor deliberately misinforming millions of voters in order to help their own chances does not sit well with me. Direct democracy means all voters deserve the chance to have their votes matter.

(For more recall myths and facts, I highly recommend this fantastic piece by  Capital Radio and PolitiFact.) Speaking of myths, facts and 15 minutes of recall fame…

The Great Los Angeles County Ballot Envelope Drama of 2021

Back in the olden days of 1990, Republican voters were the OG Vote by Mail proponents. That ship sailed a long time ago. Sadly, the recent distrust of mail ballots by conservatives has been fueled by a potent mix of bad information, and worse press coverage-which I accidentally found myself in the middle of last week, thanks to Fox 11 news, a TikTok video, and a ballot envelope design flaw that even at its most innocent, is still problematic. 

Thanks to the @LibsofTikTok Twitter account, I spotted something strange on the return ballot envelope for Los Angeles County: there were punched holes in multiple places on the return envelope. Due to poor placement, some voters discovered that their ballot choices were visible through one of the holes! 

There is a perfectly logical administrative reason for a hole to be punched in the return envelope. The hole helps ensure the election office that the envelope actually has a ballot inside, and can go to the processing and tabulation room. If there’s no ballot inside, the registrar is required to contact the voter so they can be sent a replacement return envelope. Also, a hole that is placed near where a voter signs their ballot envelope assists blind voters who may need a reference point for where to start their signature on the envelope; as the spouse of a blind person, I actually do appreciate the intended measure of independence for the voter. 

But for the love of the magically ballot fairies, if there is going to be a hole punched in the ballot return envelope, please either ensure that the hole is properly offset so that no matter how a voter folds their ballot, their selections are not visible, or provide a privacy insert or sleeve that a voter has the option to use or discard! That is not an unreasonable ask, in my opinion. Why my Twitter rant earned a mention on Fox News is beyond me. It wasn’t that interesting. 

Exactly How Much Is This Recall Costing California?

Since when does the state of California care about how much money gets spent on anything these days?

I’m only half joking here. Compared to the $30 billion lost to fraudulent unemployment claims, the ever-growing tab for fighting 92 wildfires this season alone, and the exodus of Californians to lower tax states like Texas, Nevada, and Florida, the recall costs are relatively speaking, a drop in the bucket, at least from the State’s perspective. Counties are seeing financial matters very differently. Fortunately, the projected totals are significantly lower than the $400 million initially suggested. 

According to budget documents provided by the Secretary of State’s office, the final approved total, submitted July 1st, was $276 million – at least for the counties. Some counties are in better financial shape than others. Tiny Sierra County estimates $19,200 for 3,481 voters, or just over $5 per voter. Los Angeles County’s cost will be closer to $50 million, or $8 per voter.

2003’s recall cost just over $66 million, or $4 per voter. Adjusted for inflation, $4 would be valued at $6 in today’s dollars. This recall will cost $12 per voter, or double the adjusted cost per voter from 2003. Inflation is real, kids. In all fairness, a significant portion of recall costs involve printing and sending Vote by Mail ballots to all 22 million voters in California. By comparison, only 3 million mail ballots were sent out in 2003, with 15 million registered voters in the state. 

Is This 2003 All Over Again?

Short answer: No. Blessedly, there are only 46 replacement candidates on 2021’s ballot. Disgraced former Governor Gray Davis was recalled for much pettier reasons than the ones Newsom is facing recall for. California used to be far more impatient when it was a left-leaning purple state. The most egregious sin committed by Davis had more to do with his cutting highly questionable energy deals with power companies that contributed to a long hot summer of unpredictable rolling blackouts and stratospheric utility bills. Also, car registration fees tripled for quite a few folks. Many of us old enough to remember the early aughts and going to the DMV with the exact amount in cash for our registration renewals, and finding out after multi hour DMV lines that we didn’t have enough money and needed to make a return trip gave us plenty of time to silently hate Gray Davis with the heat of Death Valley in August. 

Thanks to the political muscle and money of folks like Congressman Darrell Issa, the Dems of 2003 were rapidly heading into a state of complacent denial, where the world was a nice place, the sky wasn’t falling, and former Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante just had to show up and smile, and the Dems would retain control of the state. 

Then Arnold Schwarzenegger muscled his way into the race. Come on, nobody was ever going to beat The Governator. Even with 135 candidates on one of those glorified Keno cards that we used to call InkaVote ballots. If it’s any consolation, there were originally 247 candidates to wade through. 

Let’s accept that nobody learned their lesson from the last recall. Schwarzenegger wasn’t necessarily a bad governor, but he walked into office with a CA Assembly that was out for blood, an unfortunate series of special elections, and the state went through Secretaries of State like the band in Spinal Tap went through drummers. After he left office, California ran into the comforting embrace of longtime governor Jerry Brown and his Moonbeam brand of executive overreach; Jerry Brown was the governor of California when I was born. Flash forward to my 30th birthday, and Jerry Brown was still the governor of California.

Never doubt the Golden State’s commitment to recycling. 

During The Great and Powerful Moonbeam’s reign, a new Prince of Dynastic Politics was anointed. As Brown’s Lieutenant Governor, Gavin Newsom did a very good job. While not perfect, he seemed to learn from the rare misstep or two that he made as mayor of San Francisco, another position where he served his voters well. Yes, I said he was a good mayor. He left the city of San Francisco better than he found it, and that’s the best a voter could ask for. He had very few complaints during his tenure as LG, and when he chose to run in 2018, there was a considerable amount of goodwill banked up in his corner. The Blue Wave of 2018 seemed like an all-consuming political tsunami.

When the Golden State Turned into Pyrite

Then everything started going up in flames. California residents have been battling catastrophic wildfires for three years straight, and to make matters worse, one of Newsom’s most venerable donors, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, were held liable for negligence and damages by multiple CA courts. And as it turned out, Newsom had quietly cut deals that allowed PG&E to get away with incalculable destruction of lives, livelihoods, homes, and water resources. PG&E was even issued a “safety certificate” by the California Public Utilities Commission.

While California’s inland blazed, the residents living in the coastal cities and suburbs learned that while some progressive policies can be beneficial and bring about a higher quality of life for everyone, some issues might require a different approach: a stultifying 31% increase in the population of unhoused Californians at a time when homelessness in many states was declining at a steady rate, and an increase in violent and property crimes as an unintended result of Proposition 47. 

Blaming Newsom for everything isn’t totally fair; the voters are getting what they voted for in many ways. He inherited some massive structural problems from his predecessors, like the cursed high-speed rail to nowhere, an astronomical jump in cost of living, adversarial tax system, and a state constitution that should probably be scrapped and rewritten from scratch. However, when his administration started, his party had almost total control of the state, the budget had a surplus, and in the eyes of the vast majority of his voters, all he had to do was not be Donald Trump, and keep a steady stream of new people moving into California legally. So far, California has lost a Congressional seat, multiple elected officials are facing potential recalls of their own, and the policies that might have worked for part of the COVID pandemic in 2020 caused life altering disruptions for millions of California families. Still, Newsom had the benefit of the doubt through most of 2020. Until he got caught on camera making the wrong mistake. 

The French Laundry Faux Pas

Had Gavin Newsom not channeled his inner Marie Antoinette and chose to throw himself a maskless birthday party at the most expensive private restaurant in Napa, and then allowed himself to be photographed while doing so, it’s not hyperbolic to suggest that a fledgling recall effort led by retired Yolo County Sheriff Orrin Heatlie might not have made much of a splash. But after months of lockdown that decimated the spirits and finances of most Californians, the governor’s cavalier attitude and subsequent denial of his presence at his own soirée proved to be the last paper straw for many voters. Heatlie’s original petition had collected a few thousand signatures. The French Laundry fiasco resulted in almost half a million signatures. Recall fever just built from there. Since then, 2.1 million signatures were collected, and Newsom has gone into permanent damage control mode. 

Even if Newsom survives the recall, he’s politically radioactive and the Democrats might need to find a candidate for the future who can handle the scale of the most thankless elected position on the West Coast. Or at least attempt to manage the increasingly unrealistic expectations from both voters and legislators alike. 

Will Newsom Beat the Recall?

From a numbers perspective, Newsom is probably going to survive in the end. There’s over 10 million Democrats, only five million Republicans, and just slightly fewer No Party Preference voters. Even if every last Republican voted yes on the recall, only half as many Democrats would need to vote no, and it’s deadlocked. Unaffiliated voters have been ignored by Democrats and Republicans alike, and a good percentage might decide to sit this election out. This isn’t the CA25 Diaries! 

Does the GOP have a shot at winning? From an enthusiasm/motivation perspective, it’s possible. The early mail ballot returns are going to favor Democrats, but that is going to be offset at least in part by much higher in person turnout by GOP voters and Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander voters who largely seem to favor voting in person. 

There’s still just over two weeks until Election Day. I’m holding at a Likely No on the recall question, but if the Republicans have an aggressive GOTV plan, that rating could change. 

Genya Coulter, aka ElectionBabe, is an election official, election security writer, and the creator of #ElectionTwitter. Her areas of expertise include optimizing the voting process, and the logistics of election security. You can follow her on Twitter @ElectionBabe.

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