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Essential Politics: The odds of a Newsom recall election are growing

Gov. Gavin Newsom faces a possible recall election.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

This is the Feb. 22, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Any avid follower of California politics should circle these two dates on the calendar: March 17 and April 29.

Those are the deadlines by which, respectively, signatures must be submitted and elections officials must finish reviewing signatures in the effort to force a recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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The legendary wisecrack of baseball great Yogi Berra notwithstanding, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Newsom — who in 2018 won the most lopsided governor’s race in modern California history — will have to fight to keep the job in a statewide recall election later this year.

The governor’s critics, riding a wave of public anger over COVID-19 policies and taking full advantage of every lucky break that has come their way, are showing no signs of stumbling in their effort to collect almost 1.5 million valid voter signatures on a recall petition.

If things keep going in the current direction, Team Newsom may soon have to cast aside its arguments against holding an election and instead focus on winning an election.

A high validity rate, a slow count

On Friday, state elections officials released a tally of all recall signatures submitted, examined and validated as of Feb. 5.

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At that point, just shy of 1.1 million signatures had been turned in. Recall backers said Friday they’ve since submitted another 178,000 signatures and are processing around 445,000 more — putting the grand total, if their self-reported numbers are accurate, at a little more than 1.7 million.

It has long been assumed they’ll need a cushion of extra signatures in the event a large number are determined invalid — perhaps as many as 2 million collected before the March 17 deadline. A campaign spokesman said Friday that’s still the goal.

But here’s why the odds look strongly in their favor: Elections officials report a signature validity rate as of Feb. 5 at 83.7%. That’s an impressive number, much higher than validity rates found in most signature-gathering efforts for ballot measures.

If that rate holds, it’s possible the Newsom recall campaign could clear the hurdle with the signatures its backers say they already have.

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The hard part for everyone — Newsom’s supporters and opponents alike — is that we might not know the outcome for 11 weeks.

The rules governing the recall effort give county elections offices until April 23 to submit final tallies to Secretary of State Shirley Weber, and the most recent report showed that almost 300,000 signatures had not been reviewed as of Feb. 5. At least a few elections veterans think some California counties will need every day of the review period, as local government offices continue to operate at reduced capacity due to strict COVID-19 protocols.

The recall calendar, the all-mail scenario

If the Newsom recall supporters succeed in gathering at least 1,495,709 valid voter signatures, a number of things that are unique to this kind of election will happen next. Most notably, there will be 30 days for any voters who signed the petition to have their names removed, and then there will be 60 days for fiscal analyses by state and legislative officials of the election’s cost.

Add to that a few days here and there for information to be shared between local and state elections offices. And then there’s a 60- to 80-day window in which Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis would have to schedule the election once it’s certified by Weber. Add all that up, and the most likely scenarios suggest a recall election in early November.

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Fun fact: Had Newsom not signed Senate Bill 970 in September, which moved the 2022 statewide primary from March to June, a recall could possibly have been consolidated with the primary — probably providing the governor with a more diverse, pro-Democratic electorate than a special election, for which turnout could be much lower.

My colleague Seema Metha has put together a quick Q&A on all things recall-related.

And one final twist, which came just before Weber’s office posted the new signature tally. Newsom on Friday signed Senate Bill 29 to require a ballot to be mailed to every registered voter who’s eligible to participate in any special election held in 2021. The bill’s impetus was to limit the necessity for in-person voting in special elections to fill the former state Senate seat of L.A. Supervisor Holly Mitchell and the former Assembly seat of Secretary Weber.

But remember, the new law applies to any election this year — including an attempt to recall Newsom.

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Newsom’s new push on teacher vaccinations

Few pandemic issues have proved as vexing for Newsom in recent weeks as when and how to reopen more California schools for in-person learning. And while the governor had frequently insisted his administration had already prioritized educators for COVID-19 vaccinations, it clearly wasn’t enough.

And so on Friday, Newsom went further, promising to reserve 10% of the state’s vaccine allotment for teachers and other school employees starting March 1.

“Over a four-week period, that’s about 300,000 vaccinations prioritized to our workforce in order to get our schools reopened and support our child-care workers,” Newsom said while visiting a vaccination site in Oakland.

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Aside from some key policy questions of whether it will be enough to open more campuses, the biggest political question is whether Democrats in the Legislature — who had pushed forward with a reopening bill that Newsom says he doesn’t support — will put their plan up for a vote this week, triggering a potentially uncomfortable showdown with the Democratic governor.

National lightning round

— The extreme winter weather that left residents of Texas and other states shivering through an unseasonal cold spell is testing President Biden’s skills.

— While fighting the pandemic at home, Biden joined top allies Friday for a virtual conference on cooperating to fix a patchy global vaccination effort.

— The Justice Department is reportedly probing ties between far right-wing luminaries such as Roger Stone and Alex Jones and the rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

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— Before UCLA student Christian Secor was charged for participating in the Capitol riot, he had stirred up tensions over free speech.

Merrick Garland, the president’s nominee for attorney general, gathered valuable lessons from his experience overseeing the investigation of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Donald Trump will make his first post-presidential appearance Sunday at a gathering of conservatives in Florida.

Today’s essential California politics

— Newsom and legislative leaders announced Wednesday they have agreed to provide low-income Californians with a $600 state stimulus payment to help them weather financial hardships during the COVID-19 pandemic, part of a $9.6-billion economic recovery package that also includes $2.1 billion in grants for small businesses.

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California’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been plagued by data issues, leaving the state unable to keep track of how many doses are available at any one time.

Jessica Millan Patterson on Sunday was reelected as chair of the California Republican Party.

— A poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies shows that California Republican voters are less concerned about contracting COVID-19, less worried about people not wearing masks or maintaining physical distance and view vaccinations more as a personal choice than as protection for the larger population.

— The state’s struggle to get unemployment benefits to jobless workers and combat fraud has been hampered by an exodus of some 1,590 staff and managers involved in the effort since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

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Imaad Zuberi, a San Gabriel Valley businessman who was one of the country’s top fundraisers for Democrats and Republicans, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for schemes to funnel foreign money into U.S. political campaigns and skim millions of dollars for himself.

— A California GOP state senator has proposed legislation intended to curb so-called cancel culture by adding political affiliation to a list of classes — such as race, gender and religious creed — that are protected under California’s anti-discrimination laws.

— Five years after a California law allowed doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill people who want to end their lives, new legislation would make it easier for those who are dying to choose that option.

— A small group of drivers for app-based companies and a major labor union are pushing forward their legal challenge to Proposition 22, the California voter-approved law allowing gig companies to keep treating their workers as independent contractors, after the state Supreme Court threw out the lawsuit.

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— Eighty years after California created separate incarceration facilities to spare teenagers from being locked up alongside adults, the state has pledged to begin the shutdown of its long-troubled and frequently violent youth prisons.

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