Your Guide to the Gavin Newsom Recall Election

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Gov. Gavin Newsom will face a recall election on Sept. 14, 2021.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Just when Californians thought they were done with elections for a while, a new one pops on the scene. If you haven’t been paying attention, there’s an election to recall Governor Gavin Newsom coming up. Here’s a primer with nitty-gritty voting details, some context for the campaign, and what you’ll find on your ballot.

When Is the Recall Election?

Sept. 14, 2021. Local election officials will begin sending out vote-by-mail ballots by Aug. 16.

How Do I Vote?

You can vote by mail or in person.

For voting by mail: If you’re registered to vote, you will receive a mail-in ballot at the address you have registered with the state. Be sure to sign and date your election envelope before sending it back. Drop your completed ballot off at any U.S. Postal Service mailbox, or at the post office. There will also be ballot drop-off locations available in your county. Check with your county’s election office for details.

For in-person voting: Some counties have in-person voting sites that will open Sept. 4. Many also offer curbside ballot drop-off. Again, check with your county’s election office for details.

Are Recalls Common in California?

Recall attempts are very common, but it’s rare for a petition to collect enough signatures to go to a ballot. According to the secretary of state: “Since 1913, there have been 179 recall attempts of state elected officials in California. Eleven recall efforts collected enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and of those, the elected official was recalled in six instances.”

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It’s worth noting the number of signatures needed to recall a governor in California is among the lowest in the nation. Only Montana and Virginia require a smaller percentage of signatures. Still, California is a large state, and running a recall campaign across many large media markets is an expensive proposition.

How Did This Recall Attempt Make It to the Ballot?

There have been five other signature-gathering attempts to recall Governor Gavin Newsom since he took office in 2019. Those efforts failed to collect the 1,495,709 signatures needed (that’s 12% of the number of people who voted in the last gubernatorial election) within 160 days.

This petition was led by Orrin Heatlie, a retired Yolo county sheriff's sergeant. Initially, it looked like it would also fail to collect enough signatures, but in November, a Sacramento judge gave recall proponents four additional months to gather signatures. The judge said arguments that the pandemic had inhibited proponents' ability to gather signatures were “persuasive.”

Paul Von Lutzow signs a petition in a recall effort against California Governor Gavin Newsom near Pasadena City Hall in Pasadena, California, on Feb. 28, 2021. (Photo by David McNew/AFP via Getty Images) (David McNew/AFP via Getty Images)

“The extension really coincided with COVID-19, the pandemic, really hitting its worst stage in California,” says Guy Marzorati, reporter and producer with KQED’s California politics and government desk. “And Newsom started to make some self-inflicted errors.”

On the same day recall organizers were given the signature-gathering extension, Newsom visited the French Laundry, an expensive Napa Valley restaurant. Photos were taken of the governor mingling, unmasked, with a large group of friends — at a time when he was urging Californians to stay home and wear masks to avoid spreading the virus. It was a scandal.

According to the secretary of state, recall organizers ultimately turned in 2,161,349 signatures. Following verification and withdrawals, 1,719,900 valid signatures remained — more than enough to get the recall on the ballot.

Why Is the Election in September?

Many expected the election to be held in November or early December, a time of year when elections are often held. But Democratic lawmakers changed election laws so they could speed up the timeline for the recall.

By holding the election in September, Democrats hope to take advantage of the governor’s rising approval rating. Republicans have cried foul, but the Sept. 14 election date has stuck.

What Will Voters See on the Ballot?

There are two things to vote on:

    • “Shall GAVIN NEWSOM be recalled (removed) from the office of Governor?” Yes or no.
    • Then, there's a list of 46 candidates who could succeed Newsom if he is recalled. Voters can choose one.

Voters who vote against the recall can still choose a successor candidate.

Who Is Running Against Newsom?

Republicans dominate the field of 46 candidates, which has no establishment Democrats — a win for the Newsom camp. They didn't want a well known Democrat to run as a replacement candidate, thinking it would give credence to a recall they're trying to frame as a Republican power grab. However it leaves Democrats with no recognizable backup candidate if Newsom is recalled.

Finance YouTuber Kevin Paffrath is trying to fill that void, positioning himself as the Democratic alternative to Newsom. Notably, Newsom won't be listed as a Democrat on the ballot.

“We see [the Republicans] broken down into two buckets,” says Marzorati. “Traditional politicians, and then entertainers, celebrity types.”

Among the traditional politicians are: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who was long discussed as a potential opponent for Newsom; former gubernatorial candidate John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018; state Assemblymember Kevin Kiley of Rocklin; and former U.S. Rep. Doug Ose.

The bigger names in the entertainment set are: Larry Elder, conservative talk radio show host; and Caitlyn Jenner, reality TV star and former Olympian.

“It will be interesting to see who Californians voting on these replacement candidates go for: the traditional politicians, or as we saw in 2003 [when Arnold Schwarzenegger beat Gray Davis], someone who is coming from outside the world of politics,” says Marzorati.

On Aug. 4, Kevin Faulconer, John Cox, Kevin Kiley and Doug Ose faced off in a televised debate.

What Do the Polls Say?

While polls a few months ago showed the recall was unlikely to be successful, Newsom now has reason to worry. Two new polls, one from the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies and the other from Emerson College, show it’s a close race among likely voters, with Republicans showing more interest in voting than Democrats or those with No Party Preference.

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Of the replacement candidates, the polls show Larry Elder, John Cox and Kevin Faulconer leading in the race to replace Newsom.