Judge Denies Newsom’s Request to Identify Himself as a Democrat on Recall Ballot

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Newsom speaking
Gov. Gavin Newsom at a press conference in San Francisco on March 24, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A superior court judge in Sacramento on Monday denied a request by Gov. Gavin Newsom to force California Secretary of State Shirley Weber to include his Democratic Party affiliation on the recall election ballot, despite the fact the Newsom missed a filing deadline.

In an 11-page decision, Judge James Arguelles said "Secretary Weber had no ministerial duty to accept the untimely designation."

The decision comes after a lawsuit filed two weeks ago by Newsom's lawyers asked the court to compel Weber — a Newsom appointee — to include the governor's party affiliation next to his name on all recall ballots sent to voters.

In the June 28, 2021 suit, filed in Sacramento Superior Court, Newsom's attorneys acknowledged an "inadvertent but good faith mistake on the part of his elections attorney" in not including the governor's Democratic Party affiliation when the recall response papers were filed with the secretary of state in early 2020, as required by law.

Candidates who want their names included on the recall ballot as potential successors to Newsom have until this Friday to file the required paperwork to the secretary of state, including their last five years of personal income tax returns and party affiliation.

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The recall election has been set for Sept. 14.

Many political observers noted the irony of a governor suing his own hand-picked but independent election official, who refused his request because it was not filed by the legal deadline. To some it had the appearance of a kind of "palace intrigue," revealing an unexpected clash between two fellow state Democrats.

To others, though, it exemplified the arrogance of a governor trying to get the state's top election official to basically do him a favor by disregarding a law that he had signed. That perception of hubris had already been established last year, after revelations that Newsom attended a birthday party for a lobbyist at an upscale Napa Valley restaurant, at a time when he was publicly urging Californians to stay home and wear masks to slow spread of the coronavirus — an incident that helped fuel the effort to recall him.

Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, has long believed that a secretary of state best serves the voters by not being partisan or helping one party over another.

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"If any election official is asked to do something that is not clearly defined in the law, the appropriate thing to do is to ask them to seek a court order," Alexander said. "That's the right response no matter who is asking," she said, adding that she hoped the governor would ultimately get to include his party affiliation, "since it is vital election information that helps voters make their decisions."

According to Senate Bill 151, the 2019 law Newsom signed that outlines recall election procedures, "If the officer did not state a political party preference on the officer’s affidavit of registration, the statement shall read: 'Party Preference: None.' "

In some ways, that's worse than simply not including Newsom's party affiliation, since it could actually suggest to an uninformed voter that he doesn't belong to any party.

But it's not entirely clear how much the "D" next to Newsom's name would matter anyway, given the governor's strong name recognition among California voters.

"I think it would make a 2% to 5% difference maybe, at most," said Anne Dunsmore, a political consultant to the recall campaign. "For those who are going to vote in this election, everyone knows who Gavin Newsom is."

Arguelles is the same judge who last year granted recall proponents an extra 120 days to collect valid signatures, a decision that proved invaluable to their efforts. The petition drive caught fire when news of the governor's ill-advised visit to French Laundry became public. Newsom now acknowledges that dinner was a costly political blunder.