California's Newsom Recall Election: How to Vote, and What You Might Not Expect

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Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a press conference on May 10, 2021, in Oakland. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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On Sept. 14, there'll be a recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom, in which California voters will decide whether he should be replaced. Ballots are already being sent out to the state's registered voters in some counties, and all voters should have their ballots by next week.

The last gubernatorial recall election in California was back in 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected to replace then-governor Gray Davis. Read on for the key points about the 2021 Newsom recall election, from what's on your ballot to how voting works — there could be some elements you might not be aware of.

And if you're interested in why this election is even happening and how we got here, take a look at this explainer from our friends at Bay Curious.

Even if you don't want to recall Newsom, you should still vote

If more than 50% of the total voters in this recall election say "yes" to recalling Newsom, he will be recalled and whichever replacement candidate gets the most votes will become governor in late October.

The replacement candidate won't need a majority of votes. It also won't matter how few votes they get. They will become governor of California for the next year and a half, for the rest of Newsom’s term.

If more than 50% of voters say "no" to the recall, Newsom will continue as governor until his term ends on Jan. 2, 2023.

All this means that even if you believe Newsom should remain governor of California, you should actively vote for that outcome, rather than sitting it out. Your lack of a vote won't count as a vote against the recall.

Everyone's getting a mail-in ballot (again)

Just as in the 2020 general election, if you're registered to vote you'll be receiving a mail-in ballot by default for the recall election, without requesting it.

Remember: Your ballot will be sent to the address at which you're registered to vote, so check now that your address is correct — especially if you moved in the last year. And if you're not already registered to vote, you can do it online or by mail until Aug. 30. If you miss that deadline, you can still conditionally register at any voting location through Election Day.

You might find the recall question you're voting on confusing

Your ballot has two things to vote on, in the form of two questions: whether you want to recall Newsom, and which candidate you want to succeed him if he is recalled.

Question 1 reads: “Shall GAVIN NEWSOM be recalled (removed) from the office of Governor?” Yes or no.

This means that if you vote "yes," you're voting to recall Newsom and remove him from his position as governor of California. If you vote "no," you're voting to keep Newsom as governor of California.

It's important to clarify this, because the yes/no expression of Question 1 might be confusing to some folks. For example, some might think a "yes" vote means a thumbs-up for Newsom.

Next on your ballot, Question 2 has a list of 46 candidates who could succeed Newsom if he is recalled. You can choose one. Which leads us to ...

Even if you don't want to recall Newsom, you can still vote for a hypothetical replacement...

Even if you vote "no" on recalling Newsom on Question 1 of your ballot, you can still answer Question 2 by choosing a candidate to succeed him in the event that the recall effort is successful. And for folks who didn't vote in the last recall election back in 2003, or don't remember it, that concept might not be obvious.

If you're voting "no" on the recall, you might think "if I don't want Newsom to be recalled, why should I choose his potential replacement?" The answer to that is: If Newsom is recalled, your choice of candidate will still actively count toward who replaces him as governor. Answering Question 2 by choosing a succession candidate doesn't affect or invalidate a "no" answer to Question 1 about the recall itself.

In short, by voting on Question 2, you'll have a say in who California's next governor is if Newsom were to be recalled, even if you vote against the recall. But if you leave Question 2 blank, you won't have that say.

... and you can't just write in Newsom's name

If you're voting "no" on the recall in Question 1, you may also be tempted to write in Gavin Newsom's name in Question 2 rather than choosing one of the replacement candidates listed. But if you do this, your write-in won't be counted, as Newsom can't run against himself in the recall.

This also applies to any other candidates you write in who aren't official replacement candidates (i.e., listed on the ballot) or who haven't formally applied to be a write-in candidate. Read more about how write-in candidates work on your ballot.

Election 2020 is drawing closer. Get to know the crucial dates.
The 2021 California recall election is drawing closer. Get to know the crucial dates. (cottonbro/Pexels)

Why you might want to mail your ballot early, or deliver it in person

In order to be counted, your ballot must be postmarked on Election Day (Sept. 14) at the latest.

In this recall election, your ballot has seven days to reach your county elections office. (That's versus the 17 days that it had for the 2020 election.)

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Remember, one big reason that ballots get disqualified is because voters mail them too late: either too late on Election Day itself, after U.S. Postal Service mailboxes have already been collected, or after Election Day. So in this recall election, it's as crucial as ever to make sure you have a plan for voting on time — and if you're not voting in person, that means making sure you get your ballot into a mailbox or into a secure voting drop box, at a polling location or your county elections office, by the time polls close on Sept. 14.

Missed the deadline to register to vote? Don't panic

If you miss the Aug. 30 deadline to register to vote, you can register via what's called Same Day Voter Registration (also known as Conditional Voter Registration). If you're doing this on Election Day itself, you can register and vote at the same time at your polling place — find details of your polling place here.

If you're unhoused or have no fixed address, you can still register to vote by providing a description of the place where you spend most of your time, including cross streets. You can register to vote this way via online application — deadline Aug. 30 — or on the paper voter registration application you can pick up at any Department of Motor Vehicles field office, or many post offices, public libraries, government offices or your county elections office by request. You can also do it on the day you vote in person, with Same Day Voter Registration.

If you have been displaced from your home by a wildfire and won't be able to access your ballot, you can fill out a one-time Vote-by-Mail Ballot Application and list a new mailing address where you'd like to receive your ballot for the recall election.

Tell us: What else do you want to know?

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