What To Know About Gov. Newsom's Sept. 14 Recall Election
Voters will soon be receiving mail ballots for the Sept. 14 recall election, in which they will decide whether to kick Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom out of office.
Statewide recall elections are a rarity in California and function unlike any other election.
Ballots contain two questions. The first is a simple yes or no: Should Newsom be recalled? The second question asks who should replace Newsom if a majority of voters support the recall.
If a majority votes "no" on the recall, Newsom stays in office, and the results of the second question don't matter. If a majority votes "yes" on the recall, whichever replacement candidate gets the most votes becomes governor.
This allows for an ironic scenario: Say 5,000,000 voters want to keep Newsom in office, but 5,000,001 voters want him out. Newsom would leave office and the top replacement candidate would become governor, even if he or she got fewer votes than Newsom.
Newsom and the California Democratic Party have encouraged voters to vote "no" on the recall question and leave the second question blank. But even voters who want to keep Newsom in office can choose a replacement candidate if they wish. This week, the California Republican Party decided not to endorse any candidate, urging voters to choose "yes" to recall Newsom and then pick any Republican to replace him.
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And it's not just the rules of the recall election that are unusual. The vote is also taking place in mid-September in an odd year, when elections typically don't happen. Sonja Diaz, founding director of the UCLA Latino Policy & Politics Initiative, said that is likely to discourage less frequent voters from casting ballots.
"That may be normal for some who have been voting in California for years and years," Diaz said. "But as it relates to our youthful, diverse voters, that's new and novel. And there's going to need to be a concerted effort to educate voters about how to make sense of this ballot."
Polls have consistently shown more voters oppose the recall effort than support it. But among voters who are likely to cast ballots, the split is almost even. That's because of the enthusiasm gap.
Republicans have not won a governor's race in California since 2006, when incumbent Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was reelected after first taking office in the 2003 recall. Diaz said the GOP is thrilled about the chance to take control of the country's most populous state, and a Democratic stronghold.
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"That can be really exciting for that segment of voters, but that is not the universe of California voters," Diaz said. "Turnout is going to dictate the outcome of Sept. 14."
Due to a law prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, all registered voters will receive a mail ballot.
Another unusual aspect of the recall election is how the candidates are campaigning. Newsom has avoided any direct engagement with the leading replacement candidates, all of whom are Republicans.
And those Republican candidates haven't bothered to appeal to the political center, as they typically would in a regular gubernatorial election, said UCSD political science chair Thad Kousser.
"All of the Republican candidates correctly diagnosed that this is a race they can win with 20% of the vote," Kousser said. "You just have to stand out among Republicans. And the way to do that is by continuing to embrace Donald Trump, which they all have, by attacking things such as critical race theory and all these sort of new culture war bogeyman."
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If the recall succeeds and a Republican becomes governor, it's unclear what the lasting impact would be on California politics. Democrats would still hold veto-proof supermajorities in the state Assembly and Senate, meaning they could still pursue their own legislative agenda. A Republican governor would also face an extraordinarily tough re-election campaign only a year after taking office.
Kousser called the scenario a "one-year political earthquake."
"It will be a proof of concept that Republicans can win, and that Donald Trump messaging and rallying the base can win in the bluest of blue states," Kousser said.
Perhaps more significantly, the governor would have immense control over the state's COVID-19 response, including policies like vaccine and mask mandates, which the leading Republican candidates oppose.
Newsom and his allies have raised more than twice as much as all of his opponents combined, according to The Los Angeles Times. But to save his political career, he'll have to translate that money into Democratic enthusiasm.