The Slatest

California Votes on Whether Gov. Gavin Newsom Keeps His Job

California Gov. Gavin Newsom walks onstage at a "Vote no" rally.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom at a “Vote no” rally. David McNew/Getty Images

It’s recall day in California! The state goes to the polls Tuesday to decide whether residents want to ditch their Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, three-quarters of the way through his four-year term. In what is now a time-honored California state tradition, each elected governor since 1960 has faced a recall initiative, but this is only the second such drive to actually make it on the ballot. Famously, the first recall vote came in 2003 when Arnold Schwarzenegger was picked to replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis just months after Davis was elected to a second term. That should make clear that recall elections are hard to predict, largely unhelpful, blatantly undemocratic, and possibly unconstitutional. But that’s how America likes its elections!

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The brass tacks of recalls in California are that the sitting governor needs to get 50 percent of voters to choose to keep him in office. Here’s a sample ballot of how that will look for voters in Santa Clara County. First, the yes or no question.

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Text of California sample ballot question #1 on whether to recall Gavin Newsom.
California sample ballot question #1 Screen shot ballot
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And if Newsom isn’t able to secure a majority of “no” votes, then the “pick one” chaos below ensues. There are 46 non-Newsom candidates on the ballot, the most famous being Caitlyn Jenner. The most popular candidate with voters however has been conservative shock jock Larry Elder, who, unsurprisingly, has a past littered with outlandish, often offensive comments on just about everything.

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The spark of the recall Newsom campaign was ignited not long after his 2018 election to the governor’s mansion with 62 percent of the vote. Since every governor has faced some form of recall movement, its launch felt mostly pro forma at the time. Whatever mild Republican annoyances existed, however, were fanned by the pandemic and Newsom’s aggressive use of government authority to close schools and businesses, require masks, basically take active steps to save lives during a sweeping pandemic that hit the state early and hard. Newsom’s handling of the crisis, like all leaders, has had a few head scratching moments, but has generally aligned with good faith leadership efforts to save lives and livelihoods, in that order. It was a bruising period that required tough, sometimes unpopular decisions to be made in real-time. It all added up to enough fodder to warrant some serious challengers next election, but not being removed from office. That is until Newsom was seen at party at an uber-fancy Napa County restaurant, busting his own lockdown rules, and kicking the recall effort into high gear.

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At first, things looked dire for Newsome as over the summer he was running essentially even with anybody but himself. As the weeks have worn on though, the governor has looked increasingly likely to keep his job. A poll last week from the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley gave Newsom a comfortable margin among likely voters with 60 percent supportive of keeping him in office and just 39 percent in favor of a recall. If those numbers hold, it’s hard not to argue that this was a colossal waste of time and money and effort, which it most certainly has been.

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Slightly changing the dynamics of the race is the fact that each of California’s 22 million voters was sent a mail-in ballot this time around in addition to early voting options. “At least 8.7 million ballots, representing 39 percent of the state’s electorate, had been returned as of Monday evening, according to data firm Political Data Inc., which compiles information from county registrars,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “As of Monday, 52 percent of mail ballots have come from Democrats, 25 percent from Republicans and 23 percent from independents or third-party voters. Surveys have found that Republicans are more likely to vote in person.”

Unless Newsom really coasts to victory, there’s a chance it could take days for California to have a winner, as state rules allow ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted as long as they are received by Friday. The likely loss by Republican Larry Elder has already lead to a revival of Republican rumblings of fraud.

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