SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California Governor Gavin Newsom’s political fate is officially in the hands of over 22 million California voters who have the rare opportunity to recall a sitting governor.
Despite claiming more votes than any previous Democrat during his landslide 2018 victory, the first-term governor and the state’s majority party are being forced to win a statewide election for the second time in under three years. Republicans hope the grassroots effort that started in rural California and caught fire toward the end of 2020 can make the party relevant in state politics for the first time in more than a decade.
The genuine challenge to the Democrats’ grip over the executive branch kicks off amid yet another pandemic wave, a bitter statewide drought and the return of wildfires to the Golden State.
“I think it’s a lot closer than it should be for a Democratic governor in a very Democratic state,” said University of Southern California professor Christian Grose. “The idea that Newsom who won so overwhelmingly just three years ago but is facing a serious threat of recall is a pretty big deal.”
Recall rules and ballot
California’s recall rules are an artifact from the early 20th century and the direct democracy system established during the state’s Progressive Era. Then Gov. Hiram Johnson and his supporters took control of the Legislature and enacted a slate of reforms intended to quell the railroad industry’s long held dominance over state politics.
The Progressive’s concept still allows disgruntled constituents to try and remove elected officials if they can gather a total of valid signatures that equals 12% of the total voters in the last election for the office. In this case, Newsom’s critics submitted nearly 1.7 million verified signatures, well clear of the required 1.49 million.
California voters have recalled just one governor when they removed Democrat Gray Davis in 2003 for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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 majority votes no, the recall is defeated.
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. California’s system allows for a scenario in which a replacement candidate can win the election without gaining a majority of the votes.
Like the 2020 presidential election, each registered voter will receive a mail ballot whether they want one or not. Voters in all counties will also have the option to vote in person. Lawmakers and Newsom approved universal mail ballots last year due to the pandemic for all elections through 2021, but there is pending legislation that would make the change permanent.
As the incumbent, Newsom boasts a bag of advantages over the dozens of candidates on the replacement ballot, namely in the fundraising department.
Incumbents aren’t subject to the same campaign contribution rules as the replacement field, so Newsom’s campaign has been able to fundraise as if the recall were a typical ballot proposition. The loophole combined with the governor’s well-established donor network have swelled his coffers to the $70 million mark, smashing the total raised by the next closest Republican challenger Larry Elder who has raised around $13 million.
At campaign stops and in advertisements, Newsom is blasting the recall as a movement led by Donald Trump supporters, conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers.
“What's at stake in the Sept. 14 recall? It's a matter of life and death," a recent Newsom ad warns.