By Zach Drucker
California residents on September 14 will vote to either keep Governor Gavin Newsom or elect a new governor to replace him. Even in the Democratic stronghold of California, Governor Newsom could not fend off the perfect storm of pandemic unrest and partisan outrage. With almost 20 years since the last recall election, here is everything you need to know about the upcoming election and what it means for San Francisco.
WHAT IS CALIFORNIA’S RECALL PROCESS?
California’s Recall History
California is no stranger to recall campaigns. Since recalls became part of California law in 1911, there have been 179 recall attempts, including every governor since 1960. It helps that recall proponents don’t need a reason to start a recall petition and are given ample time to gather signatures from only 12 percent of the last electorate—making it easier to launch a recall petition in California than in almost any other state.
However, most of those recall campaigns never reached the ballot. Recall proponents quickly realized that while it is easy to start a recall petition, it is much harder to run a successful signature campaign in a state of nearly 40 million and five major media markets. The only recall of a California governor to reach the electorate came in 2003 when Gray Davis lost to Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Qualifying a Recall Petition
To qualify for the ballot in California, a recall petition must receive the signatures of registered voters equal to 12 percent of the electorate from the last gubernatorial election (1,495,709 valid signatures in this case). Proponents have 160 days to gather enough signatures. Once recall proponents turn in these signatures, the California Secretary of State must then examine and verify the signatures. If the recall petition meets the threshold, voters who signed the petition have 30 business days to change their minds.
In this case, the California Secretary of State found 400,000 invalid signatures, which still put the signature count a healthy 200,000 over the signature threshold. Governor Newsom’s team had until June 8 to change voter’s minds who signed the petition, but in the end, only 43 opted to remove their signatures.
Picking the Election Date
In a shrewd political move, the heavily Democratic California legislature passed and had the governor sign SB 152. The measure allows the legislature to bypass the Secretary of State’s financial review process as long as funds had been set aside to pay for the recall election. With $250 million earmarked in the budget for the election, the legislature did just that and settled on the early date of September 14.
Many experts believe that picking an earlier date should give Governor Newsom an advantage. With Californians getting vaccinated, the state reopening, and children heading back to the classroom this fall, life in California is trending in the right direction. It should also limit the amount of time for another COVID outbreak or peak wildfire season to start. All of which does not bode well for proponents of the recall.
Asking the Voters
When voters receive their ballot, they will be faced with two simple questions: (1) Should Governor Newsom be removed from office? (2) If the Governor is removed, who should take his place?
If a majority of voters say no to the first question, then Governor Newsom will have held off the recall. But if more than 50 percent of voters answer yes to the first question, then Governor Newsom will be recalled, and the candidate that receives the most votes will replace him. The replacement candidate only needs to win a plurality of the votes and does not need to receive more than 50 percent of the vote. This happened in 2003 when Schwarzenegger won with 48.6 percent of the vote.
WHO IS RUNNING AGAINST GOVERNOR NEWSOM?
To challenge Governor Newsom, the barrier to entry is surprisingly low. Candidates must be U.S. citizens registered to vote in California, cannot be convicted of certain felonies, and either must pay a $4,000 filing fee or submit signatures from 7,000 supporters. With such a low bar, it’s no surprise that 57 candidates have officially announced their intention to run.
The most high-profile and serious Republican contenders include Kevin Faulconer, the former Mayor of San Diego, John Cox, a successful businessman and the Republican candidate in the last gubernatorial race (who has also faced some legal troubles by bringing a live bear with him on the campaign trail), and Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympic gold medalist and reality television star.
On the Democratic side, no prominent candidate has entered the race. The Democratic Party highly discouraged its members from challenging Mr. Newsom and so far, they have followed suit—though candidates do have until July 16 to enter the race.
As an extra quirk to the race, Governor Newsom’s attorneys made a filing error when they submitted paperwork related to the recall and left off the Governor’s party affiliation. The Governor then sued his Secretary of State in an attempt to rectify the error. In the end, however, the Superior Court Judge ruled in favor of the Secretary of State and now Governor Newsom will officially enter the race with no party affiliation next to his name on the ballot.
WHAT LED TO THIS CURRENT RECALL?
The recall attempts started as soon as Newsom was inaugurated in January 2019. Each of the first five attempts to recall the Governor failed to reach the voters. Then Orrin Heatlie, a Republican and retired Yolo County Sheriff sergeant, and his group, the California Patriot Coalition, launched the sixth and eventually successful recall attempt in February 2020.
Initially, the recall started with a focus on conservative grievances such as out-of-control homelessness, failing to enforce immigration policies, and high taxation. Then the pandemic hit and they had to halt gathering signatures due to social distancing restrictions. The signature campaign then picked up again in November after a Sacramento judge approved a 120-day extension.
With newfound life, the petition quickly picked up signatures. This time it focused on frustrations over Governor Newsom’s COVID restrictions that closed schools, businesses, and places of worship. But even with the pandemic bump, the petition appeared dead in the water until the Governor’s famous French Laundry mishap. The petition went from around 55,000 signatures that day to nearly half a million a month later.
HOW LIKELY IS GOVERNOR NEWSOM GOING TO BE RECALLED?
Governor Newsom finds himself in a much better position to fend off the recall than Gray Davis in 2003. According to a Public Policy Institute of California poll conducted in May, the results showed that 57 percent of likely voters would support the Governor and 40 percent would vote to recall him. The poll also found Governor Newsom’s approval rating among likely voters is 54 percent, which is almost double that of Gray Davis’ approval rating in 2003.
Additionally, it doesn’t hurt Governor Newsom’s chances when he has outraised his opponents $21 million to about $5 million. The Governor’s campaign team worked the state’s campaign finance rules heavily in their favor. Because the law treats his defense against the recall as a ballot issue and the candidacies of his challenges as regular elections, he is able to raise unlimited sums while the donor of his rivals must abide by the $32,400-per-election limit on single contributions.
WHAT ELSE WILL BE ON THE BALLOT?
At the state level, qualified ballot initiatives will head to the 2022 election as planned and not be moved up for the recall election. The Secretary of State decided against the move, which will provide proponents of the ballot initiatives ample time to run campaigns.
Then at the local level, San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen passed a resolution through the Board of Supervisors that indicated the Board’s intent to hold an election on the same day as the state election, contingent on a statewide recall election confirmation. The intent of the resolution was to place ballot measures and potentially a special election, but with the short turnaround, the deadlines quickly passed.
Then there is also the possibility of pairing the San Francisco recall campaigns of either District Attorney Chesa Boudin or the three members of the Board of Education with the recall election. The recall of the District Attorney needs to gather 51,325 valid signatures by August 11 and the recall of the Board of Education members needs 51,325 signatures per board member by September 7. If either of these recall campaigns meets their signature requirements, it is unclear at this time whether or not the recall will head to the September 14 election or the June 2022 election.
WHAT TO EXPECT BEFORE THE SEPTEMBER ELECTION?
With only a couple of months before the election, we should expect to see the campaigns kick it into another gear. Any last-minute push or substantial poll numbers needs to happen soon if proponents of the recall want to make this a close race. As for San Francisco politics, the election is looking rather boring compared to San Francisco standards. But that can change in a split second. Keep up with sf.citi and our election resources to make sure you stay informed about the September 2021 election.
Voting is the easiest way to participate in our democracy. Make sure to register to vote by the August 30 deadline!