SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Few voting issues were reported on the final day of voting in California’s recall election Tuesday, but unsubstantiated reports from GOP party leaders threatened to hamper Republican turnout in the closely watched contest seeking to oust the Democratic governor.
The campaign of Larry Elder, one of the leading Republican candidates seeking to replace Newsom if the recall succeeds, paid for a website insinuating that Gov. Gavin Newsom had already won the election by fraud. The language was lifted from a petition circulated to help former President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn last year’s presidential election results.
By Tuesday afternoon, that language was removed from the website, leaving only a form for people to report “irregularities, interference, or intimidation while voting.” A campaign spokeswoman said the site is operated by a third party and that “websites update their language all the time.”
Elder had previously said he expects “shenanigans, as there were in the 2020 election,” echoing the baseless claims from Trump about widespread voter fraud.
Such comments drew a strong rebuke from Newsom, who spoke to reporters after greeting volunteers in San Francisco.
“This election fraud stuff is a crock. It’s shameful,” Newsom said. “As an American, I’m ashamed, I’m disgusted by it. Stop it. Grow up. These people are literally vandalizing our democracy and trust in our institutions.”
There were few reported problems with voting on Tuesday. A polling center in Tulare County was closed because of a wildfire, with voters redirected to nearby alternatives. And a poll worker at a West Hollywood voting site was removed for wearing a pro-Trump shirt, according to the Los Angeles County Registrar’s Office.
The messaging about fraud poses problems for Republican Party officials, who are encouraging everyone to vote while also promoting a narrative that California’s election security can’t be trusted. Harmeet Dhillon, an attorney and the national committeewoman of the Republican National Committee for California, said she made a video with her husband showing them casting ballots by mail and urging everyone to do the same.
But Dhillon also said she could not say whether California’s election will be secure, detailing numerous problems she said she and a team of attorneys monitoring voting have witnessed.
“There will be a lot of questions and potentially litigation after this election about this sloppy-at-best treatment of people’s ballots and their right to vote,” Dhillon said.
Much of the GOP criticism of California’s elections has focused on mail-in ballots, which were automatically sent to all active registered voters since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. An overwhelming majority of California voters cast ballots by mail even before the pandemic, and no widespread voter fraud issues have surfaced.
As of Monday, more than 8.5 million ballots have been cast out of more than 22.3 million eligible, according to AP Elections Research. Mike Sanchez, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Registrar’s Office, said voting by mail is “trusted, secure and safe,” with extensive protocols to verify every ballot.
“The claims made disregard and misrepresent those safeguards. As a result, their messaging could be confusing to voters and discourage participation,” he said.
The GOP’s predicament is similar to that in last year’s presidential election, when many in the party feared that Trump’s claims about widespread fraud from expanded mail-in voting would backfire by persuading Republicans to stay home.
In California, the GOP needs all the help it can get.
Democrats make up 46.5% of all registered voters, while Republicans make up just 24%. Independent voters are roughly equivalent to Republicans, but tend to vote Democratic. Republicans have not won a statewide office since 2006, when Arnold Schwarzenegger won reelection as governor.
Dhillon pointed to a weekend incident in Los Angeles when some people who showed up to vote in the Woodland Hills neighborhood said they were told they had already voted.
The Los Angeles County Registrar’s Office said the error was caused by settings on some computers used to check in voters. The office said those affected were allowed to cast provisional ballots, which act as placeholders until voter eligibility is determined.
Not all Republicans are embracing the claims of election malfeasance. John Cox, a businessman running to replace Newsom, said voter fraud concerns are “another distraction.”
“It’s going to result in some people deciding not to vote,” Cox said as he campaigned Monday.
Separate from the Republican claims, a group of election security and computer science experts have raised concerns about California’s election system, based on copies of an election management system that is similar to one being used in 40 of California’s 58 counties.
The unauthorized copies were released at an event organized by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a Trump ally who has made unsubstantiated claims about last year’s election.
Part of the challenge for election officials is the vote counting and reporting process. Election officials can begin processing mailed ballots ahead of Election Day, meaning the first batch of results released is from mail-in ballots that are expected to slightly favor Democrats, followed by results from in-person voting, which is expected to show more Republican votes. Finally, mail ballots that are postmarked by Tuesday can be counted and reported for up to seven days.
All votes are being cast on paper ballots that can be hand-counted if questions arise.
Local elections officials are seeing more interest from election observers aligned with Republicans, said Donna Johnston, Sutter County registrar of voters and president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.
Johnston said election officials welcome observers and the chance to explain procedures that ensure election security and integrity. She said the increase in distrust is “heartbreaking to us.”
“Election officials take it personally when somebody is just making unfounded accusations about what we do,” Johnston said.
Associated Press writer Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.