Essential Politics: Picking a date for the Newsom recall

Demonstrators shout slogans while carrying a sign calling for a recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

This is the June 28, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

Amid this week’s flurry of final legislative votes on a state budget blueprint, we should also see the next big moment in the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Among the items related to the budget and teed up for a vote is Assembly Bill 152, which revises the rules related to recall elections. The bill allows all fiscal analyses of a recall’s costs to happen quickly and, when signed by Newsom, will allow Secretary of State Shirley Weber to certify the gubernatorial recall and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis to schedule the election.

Keep an eye on mid-September

There’s only one rule for Kounalakis to follow: The recall election can’t be any sooner than 60 days from when she takes action or any later than 80 days.

Here’s where things get interesting. Were the lieutenant governor to be handed the task by week’s end, the latest date for voters to weigh keeping or firing Newsom would be Sept. 21. The earliest would be Aug. 31, but that could cause chaos on a couple of fronts. Candidates who want to run as a potential replacement to Newsom must file their formal paperwork 59 days before the election — and a 60-day window would give them only 24 hours to sign up.

Elections officials would also be left scrambling. They’ve already urged Kounalakis not to schedule the recall earlier than Sept. 14, detailing for her a list of preelection activities they believe can’t be completed any faster.

While it’s possible the 60-to-80-day window isn’t opened by the end of this week, Democrats have warmed to the belief that the sooner the recall election is held, the better Newsom’s chances are that voters will keep him in office. And they could see Sept. 21 as the sweet spot for making that happen.


Rethinking the recall rules

The circumstances of this recall election, for some longtime observers of governance in California, offer a chance to consider whether it’s worth rethinking the rules as they now exist.

I reached out to two people who’ve thought a lot about the idea of systemic reform in California, the coauthors of the 2010 book “California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It.” Joe Mathews is a former Times political writer and biographer of former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Mark Paul is a former deputy treasurer of California and a former deputy editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.

Both men see opportunities for rethinking some of the rules. They agree on the need to rethink the successor election, the part of the ballot where the candidate with the most votes will take office if the governor is recalled.

“The method of electing a successor in the event a recall succeeds, written into the state Constitution in 1911, explicitly provides for a plurality victor,” said Paul. “But that is now totally at odds with the electoral system adopted by voters in 2010,” referring to California’s top-two primary rules that weed out all but two contenders so that no one wins statewide, congressional or legislative seats without a majority of votes cast.

“Why would we leave in place a recall system under which it’s easily conceivable that a new governor could be elected with less than 40% of the vote?” Paul asked.

“To kick out a governor and replace him/her/them with someone whose support is less broad doesn’t make sense,” said Mathews.


Mathews, who serves as California editor of the nonprofit Zócalo Public Square, offered a pretty radical idea: a gubernatorial trial where evidence could be introduced to support keeping, or removing, the chief executive.

“Maybe it’s because I’m from L.A. and enjoy live televised spectacles, but I love the idea of putting the governor on trial,” he said. “Perhaps we could insert that trial step into our recall process. It would surface more information for the public. Perhaps the jury could decide whether to let the governor stay in office, or refer the matter to the voters.”

One issue the two reformers disagreed on: whether the California Constitution’s threshold for triggering the Newsom recall — voter signatures equal to 12% of all votes cast in the 2018 gubernatorial election — is too low.

“It’s hard to see the sense in having a lower signature threshold (12%) for statewide officers than for legislators and judges (20%),” said Paul. “It simply invites the misuse of the recall that we’re seeing this year — a small but determined minority using the recall process to impose a political and fundraising burden on an official they have little hope of removing.”

Mathews disagrees. “I think that’s a good threshold. If anything, it’s too high,” he said. “Yes, other states offer less time with higher thresholds — but effectively, that means they don’t have the recall.”

Here’s the bottom line: major changes to the rules for a recall would require changes to the California Constitution, doable only through a ballot measure. And the backers of that ballot measure would be closely scrutinized to determine whether they’d simply be trying to put their thumbs on the scale in favor of one major political party or the other.


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National lightning round

— When he meets with Pope Francis on Monday, the United States’ top diplomat will try to avoid the elephant in the room: a group of conservative American Catholic bishops who want to deny full church participation to America’s top Catholic, President Biden.

— The U.S. military, under the direction of Biden, conducted airstrikes Sunday against what it said were “facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups” near the border between Iraq and Syria.

— The Supreme Court on Friday put new limits on who can sue a credit reporting agency for falsely labeling them a potential terrorist, ruling that only those whose reports were sent to a business have standing to sue in federal court.

— Armenia’s national elections commission on Sunday denied a claim by major opposition groups that the parliamentary election results that gave an overwhelming victory to the acting prime minister’s party were invalid.

Mike Gravel, a former U.S. senator from Alaska who read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record and confronted Barack Obama about nuclear weapons during a later presidential run, has died. He was 91.

Today’s essential California politics

— Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox plans to roll out a plan Monday to deal with California’s homelessness crisis.

— Conservative activists who have long promoted unproven and often false claims of voter fraud in California are spearheading a major new effort to capitalize on the upcoming gubernatorial recall vote, attempting to recruit tens of thousands of volunteers to police the polls on election day.


— Three top University of California campuses — UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego — would reduce their share of out-of-state and international students to make way for more local residents, and the UC system would admit 6,230 more freshmen in 2022, under an amended state budget bill posted Friday.

— The Los Angeles Board of Education approved a record $20-billion budget for the upcoming academic year — a massive influx of funding made possible by two unprecedented occurrences: pandemic relief money and record state tax revenues.

— California regulators again delay health rules to protect people near oil and gas sites.

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