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Thursday, December 7, 2023
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Democrats going all in for Newsom in California recall

With recall ballots now in the hands of over 22 million California voters — and recent polls showing a close race — Democrats are pushing a novel approach to ensure Governor Gavin Newsom keeps his office: Only fill out half the ballot.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — As the final vote dumps trickled in following California’s 2018 gubernatorial election, they not only confirmed the landslide victory most pundits predicted but also placed a fitting exclamation point on a relatively blemish-free campaign for Gavin Newsom.    

Outgaining his Republican opponent by nearly 3 million votes, Newsom’s victory meant a Democratic governor would follow another Democrat in Sacramento for the first time in over a century. To go with supermajorities in both legislative chambers, voters fervently gave control over the nation’s largest state to a former mayor of San Francisco most known for progressive stances on issues like same-sex marriage, gun control and marijuana.

"We're saying unmistakably — and in unison — that it's time to roll the credits on the politics of chaos and the politics of cruelty," Newsom jabbed at then-President Donald Trump during his victory speech.

But with Trump no longer on set, Newsom’s political legacy is again in voters’ hands albeit sooner than expected. In a Hollywood plot twist, the governor — who collected a larger share of the vote than any other Democratic candidate in state history — is campaigning fervently just to finish off his first term as head of the deep-blue state.

The basics

After failing nearly half a dozen times, Newsom’s critics finally broke through in the winter of 2020. 

Aided by a friendly ruling from a state judge that allowed for an extended canvassing period, the recall proponents submitted nearly 1.7 million verified voter signatures and easily cleared the bar needed to trigger a statewide recall election. After pegging the cost for the election at over $200 million, lawmakers and state elections officials set the special election for Sept. 14.

The ballots that have now reached the mailboxes of California’s over 22 million registered voters contain just two questions: "Should Newsom be removed from office?” and “If yes, who should take his place?”

If a simple majority answers yes to the recall, the candidate receiving the most votes on the second question will finish out Newsom’s term which ends on Jan. 2, 2023, and the incumbent is not listed on the replacement question. If a majority votes no, the recall is defeated.

California is one of 19 states plus the District of Columbia that allow voters to recall state officials, but with the state prepping for its second gubernatorial recall in less than 20 years, some are questioning whether the Golden State’s 110-year-old recall framework still makes sense.   

A common complaint regarding California’s system is the comparatively low threshold needed to qualify a recall attempt for the ballot. California’s target is 12% of the voters in the last election for the office, while many other states have thresholds above 25%.   

Under the current rules enshrined in the state constitution, if 50% plus one vote yes on the recall, the incumbent is replaced by the candidate receiving the most votes in the backup question, even if they don’t collect a majority. The rules open the door for Newsom to be narrowly recalled yet supplanted by a fringe candidate.

“California has a quirky process,” said Mary-Beth Moylan, associate dean at University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law. “We could have someone taken out of office by a candidate who receives, let's say 20% of the vote; that doesn’t feel very democratic, that feels like a small minority mobilized just enough to win an election.”

A flawed system?

The state avoided such an extreme scenario in 2003 when voters swapped Democratic Gov. Gray Davis for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. While Schwarzenegger didn’t clear a majority with 48.6% of the vote, he did outperform the nearest candidate by almost 1.5 million votes.


But considering the percentage of undecided voters continues to outnumber all the replacement candidates in recent polling, it appears Moylan’s example is a possibility.  

“Anybody can throw their hat in the ring and that leads to an unwieldy process,” she added.

While the two-part ballot is already in voters’ hands, one registered voter is trying to stop the special election himself.

In a federal lawsuit filed earlier this month, a voter named A.W. Clark argues the recall framework is unconstitutional. Clark says California’s procedure violates the equal protection clause by “diluting” the votes of Newsom supporters.

“The recall provision does not establish a way for votes to be of equal weight and power, since the state officer sought to be recalled specifically is prohibited from running and cannot run to replace her/himself,” the lawsuit states.

Clark also contends the recall rules flout the state’s procedure for statewide elections, which mandate winners receive a majority of the vote.

The lawsuit largely mirrors the stance of Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, who this month also ripped the rules in an op-ed.

“The most basic principles of democracy are that the candidate who gets the most votes is elected and that every voter gets an equal say in an election’s outcome. The California system for voting in a recall election violates these principles and should be declared unconstitutional,” he wrote.

The provocative piece stirred a new wave of criticism over the recall rules, but some experts predict the last-minute lawsuit is destined to fail.  

“I highly object that it’s unfair or unconstitutional,” said Wesley Hussey, associate professor of government at California State University, Sacramento. “Newsom isn't allowed to be on the 2nd ballot because he is the target of the recall. But other candidates can be, including candidates of the same political party as the incumbent officer.”

Moylan, a law professor who teaches civil procedure and election law, says federal courts aren’t typically eager to get involved in state elections and predicted Clark’s argument will be hard to sell when U.S. District Judge Michael Fitzgerald — a Barack Obama appointee in the Central District of California — holds oral arguments Aug. 30.

“It might be a bad policy but the courts aren’t in the business of deciding policy; the Legislature and people of the state of California need to decide is this the system we want,” Moylan said.


Though the state continues to face a litany of crises, from Covid-19, homelessness, drought and wildfires, Newsom has been forced to turn his attention to the recall in recent weeks.

The Newsom campaign is taking aim at longtime conservative talk radio host Larry Elder, which it — and recent polls — identify as the choicest of the replacement pool. In a recent anti-recall ad, Elder is shown posing with former President Donald Trump.

“The leading Republican candidate…he peddled deadly conspiracy theories and would eliminate vaccine mandates on day one,” the ad claims.

To defeat the recall, Newsom and the state’s top Democrats are openly calling for Californians to vote no and simply leave the second part blank. The Democrats say they are trying to eliminate potential voter confusion.

In addition, the party apparatus has united around Newsom and isn’t backing a Democratic replacement option. As a result, the pool of 46 replacement candidates doesn’t feature a single high-profile Democrat.  

Hussey cast the party’s decision as a gamble and that it should have considered running a backup, such as Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis. He added that some voters may be turned off by Newsom’s request and end up going rogue on the replacement question.

“The Democrats are letting Newsom drive the bus,” Hussey said. “Doubling down sometimes makes sense in blackjack, but sometimes it doesn’t.”  

As for the state Republican Party, it too has decided not to endorse a candidate and is allowing Elder, Assemblyman Kevin Kiley and former Olympian Caitlyn Jenner fend for themselves.

“We are squarely focused on putting California back on track by recalling the worst governor in California history,” said California GOP Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson in a statement.


Three weeks before the election, it’s clear what started as a right-wing grassroots movement has evolved into a bona fide threat for the Democrats and their dominance over state politics.

“This recall is close. Very close,” Newsom reiterated in a new fundraising blast.  

In fact, a recent poll found 47% of likely voters support the recall effort. However in the same poll, Elder led the replacement options with just 18%.

The results of California’s special election could cause reverberations in other states and on the national level, says Victor Rodriguez, chair of the Legal Studies and Political Science Department at the University of New Haven.

Rodriguez predicts if Newsom is recalled, it would create a campaign weapon for Republicans just in time for the 2022 midterms.

“They might say ‘Hey we’re coming back and this is the first step,’” said Rodriguez. “If you can hang your hat on that for as long as possible, that would have some impact in 2022.”

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