What you should know about California’s recall election

California Governor Recall

SAN DIEGO — Voters in California will go to the polls next month to determine the political fate of first-term Gov. Gavin Newsom and whether he will be replaced by one of nearly four dozens challengers.

Newsom, a 53-year-old Democrat who was elected governor in 2018, faces the second gubernatorial recall election in state history amid grievances over statewide restrictions imposed on businesses, schools and public life during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as his administration’s policies on homelessness and immigration. Organizers of the recall effort secured more than 1.7 million verified signatures to qualify the election to potentially remove Newsom from office for the ballot.

“What the pandemic did is it added an element of uncertainty,” said Brian Adams, a professor in the Department of Political Science at San Diego State University. “You know certain things will be constant. Homelessness isn’t going to change much over the last six months. But when the recall started, it was pre-vaccine, the full throes of the pandemic. The thinking was that this is only going to get worse.”

He continues: “It was plausible we’d be in a position now where it was a 20% approval rating [for Newsom]. That ended up not being the case. His approval is still pretty decent.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – FEBRUARY 17: Former San Diego Mayor and republican candidate for California Governor Kevin Faulconer speaks during a news conference in front of Abraham Lincoln High School on February 17, 2021 in San Francisco, California. Kevin Faulconer held a news conference in front of a San Francisco high school to demand that California Gov. Gavin Newsom reopen schools in the state. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Forty-six candidates qualified for the ballot in the election which ends Sept. 14. Among them are a lengthy list of Republican gubernatorial hopefuls, including conservative talk show host Larry Elder; Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego; Rancho Santa Fe businessman John Cox; Caitlyn Jenner, a reality TV star and former Olympian; and former Congressman Doug Ose.

If the effort is successful, Newsom would be the first California governor to be recalled since 2003 when Democratic Gov. Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger. The winner of the recall would serve out the remainder of Newsom’s term through Jan. 2, 2023.

The special election will cost taxpayers $276 million, according to the California Department of Finance.

What is a recall?

Recall efforts have been a part of the California Constitution since 1911 and primarily serve as a way for voters to have a voice in removing state officials from office prior to the end of their term.

In more than a century since the recall became a part of California’s political system, there have been 179 recall attempts of elected officials in the state, a timeline posted by California Secretary of State Shirley Weber’s office shows. Of those, 55 attempts have been made against the state’s governor, including six times against Newsom since 2019.

In all, 11 recall efforts have made it to the ballot and six officials have been recalled.

What will the ballot look like?

Voters will be asked two questions on the ballot. The first is whether to remove Newsom from office and the second will list all candidates and ask who should replace him if he were to be recalled, according to the secretary of state.

If a majority of votes on the first question are “Yes” for removing Newsom, the replacement candidate with the highest number of voters will be elected governor for the remainder of Newsom’s term.

Newsom would remain as governor if 50% or more of the votes on the first question are for “No.”

All registered voters in the state will receive an official mail-in ballot for the election. Voting by mail starts Aug. 16 with in-person voting available at locations throughout San Diego County from Sept. 11 through Sept. 14.

What happens after the recall?

What comes next in California largely depends on who voters side with in the election.

If Newsom survives the recall, he will remain in Sacramento to finish up his first term in the midst of cascading crises in the state from the COVID-19 pandemic to wildfires to extreme droughts. He’s likely to be heavily favored in his reelection bid and should have few, if any, challengers in the next Democratic primary, Adams said.

Adams said Newsom could benefit from a failed recall effort, effectively taking the wind out of the sails for Republicans trying to get rid of him.

“I actually think if he wins, it makes him stronger,” Adams said. “He strengthens his hand politically.”

But if Newsom were to be recalled and replaced — most likely by a Republican challenger — the replacement candidate would be elected for the remainder of Newsom’s term. County elections officials will have 30 days to complete an official canvass and, if the recall is successful, the election would be certified on the 38th day after it’s complete, according to the secretary of state.

Regardless of the outcome, Newsom — as well as any of the recall candidates — could run for governor next year with sights set on a four-year term in the office. But even if a Republican serves out the remainder of Newsom’s term, Adams said there’s no guarantee they’ll be their party’s nominee for 2022.

“You could have a governor gaining office in a few weeks, but losing in June,” he said.

It begs the question: Why would a Republican run for the office for a limited term to face a heavy Democratic majority in the state legislature and with no assurances of reelection?

For Adams, there are two primary reasons.

From left, Republican candidates for California Governor John Cox, Kevin Faulconer, Kevin Kiley and Doug Ose participate in a debate at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Yorba Linda, Calif. California Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a Sept. 14 recall election that could remove him from office. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The first is because recall elections tend to provide Republicans their best shot at the office given the makeup of the state’s electorate.

“If you’re John Cox and want to be governor, this is your best bet to do it,” Adams said. “It’s only a year, but you’ll be governor for a year.”

The other factor, according to Adams, is about how a potential victory could vault a Republican into the national spotlight. It opens up lanes for a candidate with future presidential aspirations, ambitions to serve in a Republican president’s cabinet or to become a political pundit, among other options, he said.

“I don’t think it’s likely to succeed, but it’s probably worth the effort to try because it really is their best shot to get a person as governor,” he said.

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