- On September 14, California voters will decide whether or not to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.
- This recall election is unique – largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic – making polling harder.
- Insider spoke to experts about what might happen and how the recall works.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The movement to recall California Gov. Gavin Newsom was birthed just weeks after Gavin Newsom would become California’s governor during a landslide 2018 gubernatorial race win.
The first five Trump-inspired efforts flailed, but a sixth recall petition, led by retired sheriff’s sergeant Orrin Heatlie and his California Patriot Coalition, gained some momentum.
Heatlie’s second recall petition grew legs as the pandemic became reality in the golden state. Although the petition was drafted prior to March 2020 and did not include language about the pandemic, several factors eventually aided the petition’s effort.
In June 2020, California Secretary of State Shirley N. Weber allowed Heatlie’s group to collect signatures, months after emergency health orders had been enacted by Gov. Newsom, which made the signature collection process, particularly canvassing in and out of businesses, much more convoluted.
After an official request, Judge James Arguelles of the Sacramento Superior Court granted the group an extension of the deadline to collect signatures due to the pandemic restrictions, giving the recall effort a new wind. Newsom’s administration declined to appeal the decision.
And, in November, when a maskless Newsom – who pleaded with Californians to wear masks and avoid social gatherings – was spotted luxuriating with lobbyists at the swanky French Laundry restaurant, the recall petition gained signatures and political support.
“There was no real reason to think that he was especially vulnerable except for the odd nature of California’s recall rules and COVID-19,” Jim Newton, a lecturer of public policy and veteran journalist, told Insider.
“There’s no way for there to be a COVID-19 response that doesn’t agitate a lot of people, and that has given energy and anger to this race that I suspect wouldn’t have really been there,” Newton added.
California Patriot Coalition seized on that uproar to then generate a successful recall election petition.
What is a recall election?
A recall election is a process where voters can vote to remove an elected official from office, in this case, Newsom, through a referendum election before that official’s term finishes.
In California, one of 19 states that allow recall elections, a recall petition has to be signed by the equivalent of 12% of the electorate from the last election for governor, and from at least five counties. Petitioners then have 160 days to collect signatures, unless an extension is granted.
According to CalMatters, a recall petition for Newsom needed 1,495,709 valid signatures, and on July 1, Weber certified that Heatlie’s second petition had secured 1,719,900 valid signatures and that a recall election would be triggered.
How did we get here?
Once official, dozens of candidates from across the political spectrum threw their hats in the ring in their attempts to pull a repeat of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s stunning 2003 recall election success.
Newsom faces 24 Republicans, 9 Democrats, 10 candidates who are unaffiliated, and three third-party candidates.
With 46 candidates now on the ballot, conservative radio host and Trump loyalist Larry Elder is leading the GOP pack, and trailing him is former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Media personality and Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner is in the mix, but a poll from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California polled her winning 1% of the potential vote.
How does the ballot work?
During a recall election in California, the ballot itself is markedly different from a standard gubernatorial race ballot.
Voters are asked to answer two questions: first, whether they want to recall Gavin Newsom, and second, which among the 46 candidates they would like to see become the next governor.
The math after those choices is not exactly a democratic exercise, critics say.
If more than 50% of voters vote “yes,” to recalling Newsom, he will be replaced by the opposing candidate who garners the most support.
“The real truth is that if Newsom were to lose, one of these people would replace him and it would be someone who most Californians do not support,” Newton told Insider.
“If 10 million Californians vote to keep Gavin Newsom and three million Californians vote for Larry Elder and the three million beat the 10 million, that seems fucked up, it just doesn’t seem like the way we ought to be doing it,” Newton added.
In the event that Newsom is recalled, county officials would have 30 days to count votes and on the 38th day, Weber would certify the election results. The winner would essentially serve the final year of Newsom’s term until 2022.
Whether Newsom wins or loses, there will be a gubernatorial election in November 2022.
If Newsom wins, then he sees out his normal term until January 2, 2023, and can run for re-election in 2022.
What is the likely outcome? And why?
According to polling from the Public Policy Institute of California, Gov. Newsom is relatively well-positioned to win with 58% of voters saying that they disagreed with the recall effort.
Newsom has also raised over $75 million in funding for his efforts opposing the recall, and candidates supporting the recall have raised less than half that sum altogether, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Still, experts like Levinson and Newton said that the kind of traditional polling for voting has been less useful during the pandemic, where mail-in voting and in-person voting dynamics have been reshuffled.
“The more the ballot return numbers come in, the more I feel positive for Newsom. If too many people feel this way, it’s over for him. His biggest weakness is the complacency of the electorate,” Jessica Levinson, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of Loyola Law School’s Public Service Institute, told Insider.
“The big question is if you have such a disproportionate number of Republicans and Decline To State voters show up and such a comparatively low number of Democrats show up to vote on September 14,” Levinson said. “Without that happening, I think that Newsom will fight another day.”
Newton agreed that if the turnout breaks evenly across the board with both major parties, Newsom should glide to a win, and if not, it could spell trouble on the 14th.
“The bottom line here is that the recall is opposed by Democrats and Independents and supported by Republicans. And there are a lot more Democrats and Independents than there are Republicans,” Newton said.
Both experts stressed that in a normal gubernatorial race without needing to meet a higher threshold, Newsom would handily beat the candidates he’s up against.
It’s a different state and different race than in 2003
The 2003 recall race was largely different due to former Gov. Gray Davis and former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s profiles with voters – and namely because Arnold Schwarzenegger out-polled and got more votes in total than Gray Davis.
Davis presided over an energy crisis in the early 2000s, which was partially spurred by energy deregulation laws passed by his predecessor.
According to the Washington Post, between 2000 and 2001, power costs in the state quadrupled as California dealt with an electricity shortage. Davis implemented “rolling black-outs” to try to conserve energy, and at the polls in 2003 voters took out their frustrations, largely blaming the governor for the crisis.
“Schwarzenegger showed that you could do it. Success tends to breed repetition,” Newton said. “The crisis is different too, whatever one thinks about Newsom, it’s impossible to blame him for COVID-19. The issue with the energy crisis was more a function of government.”
Levinson added that if a GOP or non-Democratic incumbent did win the recall, they would be eventually overpowered by a Democrat-led legislature, facing a likely loss in a gubernatorial election a year after the recall election.
“So it might be a psychological win or loss for either side, but in California, most of the wins or losses are already baked into the system,” Levinson said.
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