Politics

Just How Big a Mess the California Recall Is

Gov. Gavin Newsom standing with a pensive expression.
Gov. Gavin Newsom on July 14 in Bell Gardens, California. Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

It’s hard to know where precisely to start. The sun is shining, the fires are raging, and California is stumbling in a daze through a gubernatorial recall election that might change more than anyone wants to admit. You might already know the general outlines of the story: A small but passionate minority of voters, most of them Republican, are pumped to give Gov. Gavin Newsom the boot. They know better than anyone that the success of the scheme depends on keeping the Democratic majority complacent and unalarmed about what yet another “recall election” means. (After all, every governor since 1960 has faced one or more such attempts—what’s the big deal?)

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And, as you may have heard, the plan so far seems to be working. Surveys of Democrats reveal them to be pretty unconcerned and potentially unmotivated to do much about whatever’s going on: A late July Berkeley/Times poll found that Democrats by a whopping 70 percent to 8 percent margin expect Gavin Newsom to defeat the recall. There is dissonance everywhere you look. Newsom, a Democrat, has a 57 percent approval rating! But FiveThirtyEight’s polling average this week finds that among those likely to vote in the recall, keeping Newsom is barely leading, with 48.8 percent wanting to vote to keep and 47.6 percent wanting him removed.

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The good news is that for only the second time in the state’s history, every voter is getting a ballot mailed to their home. The first time that happened was last November. But everything else about this process is confusing, up to and including that ballot.

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An unmarked California recall ballot.
The California recall ballot in its majesty. Lili Loofbourow

Let me walk you through it. The ballot has two sides and asks voters to answer two questions. On one side voters are asked “Shall GAVIN NEWSOM be recalled (removed) from the office of Governor?” This question—the essential one!—is printed so immediately under the instructions that I found it easy to overlook. On the other side, which is much more recognizable as a conventional ballot, voters can choose one of 46 candidates to replace Newsom, or write in a candidate of their own. Forty-six.

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Because these are two separate questions that don’t pit the current governor directly against his potential replacements, the winner gets decided using a bizarre rule. If Gavin Newsom does not receive a majority of the votes in response to the first question, he loses the governorship. Period. That part is decided first. If he loses, the candidate who gets the most votes of those running to replace him will become governor. It’s a mathematically maddening system because of the startlingly undemocratic outcomes it can produce. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Erwin Chemerinsky and Aaron S. Edlin argue that the recall system is unconstitutional, sketching out a perfectly plausible scenario in which, even if nearly 5 million people vote to keep Newsom, he might be replaced by a candidate who receives a mere 1.8 million votes.

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The 110-year-old law governing recalls requires an unusually low number of signatures in order for a recall to make it to the ballot: Only 12 percent of the number of voters in the previous election. (Michigan, Minnesota, and Colorado require 25 percent.) The California law was designed to make it unusually easy for voters to recall elected leaders; it was one of 22 constitutional amendments Gov. Hiram Johnson managed to get passed in October 1911. He wanted to empower voters to recall leaders compromised or corrupted by larger forces (like the Southern Pacific Railroad). It was not, suffice to say, designed for a hyperpartisan moment.

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The law has not aroused enough outrage to get it changed because in the only other recall to make it to the ballot—also driven by Republicans against a Democratic governor in 2003—voters delivered Arnold Schwarzenegger more votes than Gray Davis had received in the actual 2002 gubernatorial election. It seemed like Davis had effectively been outvoted by his replacement; the outcome felt small-d democratic even if the process was not. Unless the candidates running against Newsom get a lot more popular very soon, that’s unlikely to happen again.

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Newsom’s camp, meanwhile, has not hedged its bets. He successfully kept serious Democratic candidates off the ballot to forestall the possibility of his replacement. His strategy, and that of Democratic party leaders, has been to advise voters who oppose the recall not to answer the second question on the ballot—that is, not to vote for a replacement at all. It’s a game of chicken: By making the vote more straightforward for Newsom supporters, they are (selfishly, some argue) significantly increasing the chance of a Republican governor should the recall prevail.

Newsom might also not be in this position at all were it not for a birthday party. Last November, Newsom—in violation of his own administration’s guidelines limiting gatherings to “no more than three households”—celebrated a friend’s birthday at the French Laundry in Napa County at which at least 12 people (and more than three households) were present. It angered a lot of people (including Democrats!) and likely galvanized a flailing recall effort. Fans of irony will appreciate that on the very same day, a Schwarzenegger-appointed judge granted the recall effort an extra four months to gather signatures, citing the pandemic. So here we are.

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No tour of the California recall circus would be complete without at least surveying the oddball crowd of contenders. Though Caitlyn Jenner was the splashiest entrant, she is polling poorly. The front-runner is Larry Elder, a conservative radio host who has defended a minimum wage of zero, claimed the police are more likely to shoot white people than Black ones, defended employers who discriminate against pregnant women, and claimed in writing that “women know less than men about political issues, economics, and current events.” In one of his books, he attacked Republican governor of Massachusetts Jane Swift for continuing to lead her state after giving birth to twins. He was nearly left off the ballot because, per a letter sent by the secretary of state, “incomplete redacted and/or unredacted income tax returns were filed.” He sued, claiming that a 2019 law requiring candidates to release five years of tax returns should not apply to him because the law did not apply to recall elections. He won.

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Kevin Paffrath is polling as the next most popular candidate: a centrist running as a Democrat, he’s a 29-year-old real estate developer and YouTube star. He tried to get listed on the ballot as Kevin “Meet Kevin” Paffrath. He says he’s running as a Democratic option since the party didn’t provide one. “It was mind-blowing to us that they didn’t put at least somebody in, so that way, worst case, they had a hail mary,” he’s said.

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Lagging behind but still ahead of the others is John Cox, a businessman and millionaire who ran against Newsom in 2018. At Tuesday’s gubernatorial debate (which Elder refused to attend) Cox was served on stage while delivering his opening remarks—for failing to repay consultants he hired during his 2018 campaign. Former congressman Doug Ose dropped out of the race after having a heart attack, and former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, a moderate Republican who wanted his ballot designation to be “retired San Diego Mayor” rather than “Businessman/Educator,” does not seem to be gaining traction in the polls. Neither is Angelyne, the Los Angeles icon famous for her billboards and pink Corvette (party preference: none). The hefty voter guide is filled with memorable candidate statements like “Can you dig it?” from Green Party candidate Dan Kapelovitz, “Search Youtube” from Jeremiah “Jeremy” Marciniak, or “Vote For Me The People’s Governor” from Chauncey “Slim” Killens.

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This feels like clownery and it is. But California is one of many places where clownery masks a crisis, and a lot of Californians still don’t realize this recall election is one. Within the state, there are water shortages and fires to deal with. The delta variant is extending the pandemic and those opposed to masking measures are only doubling down. The recall could have massive national implications too: Should Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is 88 years old, be unable to finish her term, the governor of California would appoint her replacement to what is now a 50–50 Senate.*

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The partisan motivation gap is real: 78 percent of registered Republicans said they were “very interested” in voting in the recall, while only 47 percent of registered Democrats said the same. And while Newsom could theoretically take comfort in that 57 percent approval rating in the CBS News poll, that figure won’t help him unless people vote who don’t seem particularly inclined to. Per the Berkeley/Times poll, Newsom is actually slightly underwater among those likeliest to vote: 51 percent disapprove of his performance as governor.

This recall is costing taxpayers a quarter of a billion dollars. A little over three weeks out in the Golden State before the election is decided, the stakes are high, the situation dire, and what remedies exist to so peculiar a crisis are confusing enough that a lot of voters are tuning them out.

Correction, Aug. 19, 2021: This article originally misspelled Dianne Feinstein’s first name.

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