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.
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.