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Alameda County Recall Laws May Change, and Pamela Price Could Benefit

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A person in red glasses sits at a table in an indoor setting.
Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price attends a public safety town hall at Genesis Worship Center in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

The Alameda County Registrar of Voters is seeking to amend county recall laws.

If approved by voters, the changes may impact the high-profile recall effort of Alameda County District Attorney Pamela Price — even, potentially, shifting the recall to the November presidential election when higher turnout may favor the outcome toward Price, a reform-minded DA.

In a Tuesday letter sent to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, the registrar of voters recommended supervisors adopt an ordinance at their Oct. 24 meeting to put the proposed language before voters in a special election on March 5, the date of California’s primary.

The charter amendment would eliminate all of the recall laws on Alameda County’s charter, and replace them with the language, “California state law applicable to the recall of county officers shall govern the recall of county of Alameda elected and appointed officers.”

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Jim Ross, a political consultant who advised Chesa Boudin’s anti-recall campaign and who has worked on campaigns in Alameda County for years, said it makes sense to align county rules with state law since that’s what most counties do.

 Ross noted that state law favors giving the registrar more time to count signatures and perform other key election tasks. And the more time that is taken, the more likely the recall vote would be on the same ballot as the presidential election more than a year away.

“This would be a big win for the Price supporters,” Ross said.

Alameda County Board of Supervisors President Nate Miley said the registrar’s letter makes it clear the charter is “antiquated” when it comes to recalls.

“I’m pretty confident the board is going to align our charter with state law,” Miley told KQED.

Price’s campaign against the recall did not return a request for comment. Critics have accused Price of contributing to rising crime in Oakland through progressive policies, including not charging minors as adults and seeking lower sentences where possible. Violent crime and property crime are up in Oakland, but experts have found little connection between the increase in rates and the prosecuting decisions of district attorneys.

 Still, signature gatherers are now canvassing the streets of Alameda County. Roughly 93,000 signatures are needed to qualify for the ballot, according to state recall rules, which were communicated to the recall campaign a few weeks ago.

County rules would’ve seen the recall campaign need about 73,000 signatures. Having to gather an additional 20,000 signatures may cost a campaign more than $200,000, Ross estimated.

“Signature gathering is all about money,” he said. “If they have the money to hire or pay signature gatherers, then they’ll qualify.”

In August, Alameda County Counsel Donna Ziegler released a statement saying the county did not know if it should follow state recall rules, or what is laid out in the county’s charter. The difference between state and county rules is key because each has distinct timelines and signature thresholds for a recall election to take place.

Brenda Grisham, a principal officer of the recall effort and a crime victims’ advocate whose 17-year-old son was shot and killed in east Oakland in 2010, said the campaign has more than 1,900 volunteers signed up to gather signatures, though about 50 were deployed just last Saturday. She thinks the campaign is on track to turn signatures in by March, and then see a June special election for the recall.

“Unless the registrar of voters put a monkey wrench in it, we are going to be on the ballot in June,” she said.

That monkey wrench might be state law.

 State law more heavily favors placing a recall on the date of a regularly scheduled election. A recall election can take place 180 days after signatures qualify and a recall is ordered, according to state law.

In its letter to supervisors, the registrar of voters wrote that the county’s own laws allow only 10 days to verify signatures, a goal that is “impracticable and likely unattainable.”

“The elections official is highly unlikely to verify the signatures needed within the 10-day deadline. The failure to verify signatures timely could lead to costly litigation,” the letter read.

State law, by contrast, allows 30 days to verify signatures. It also would allow the county more time to prepare ballots for the recall. The county charter would only allow 35 to 40 days to do so for a special election. State law would give the registrar of voters as much as 180 days to conduct the election.

The timing of an election matters, especially in a 2024 presidential election year. Special and primary elections tend to have lower voter turnout than general elections. That was the case in Alameda County in 2022 when 308,000 voters cast a ballot in the June primary compared to 496,000 votes cast in November’s general election.

Higher turnout elections see more people of color, younger voters and, generally, more progressive voters. While in low-turnout elections, like a June special election, the voters tend to be homeowners who pay more taxes.

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According to the registrar of voters, of the 14 counties with their own charters in California, three do not have recall provisions, which makes state rules take precedence, and the remainder otherwise incorporate state recall law. Alameda County is the only county in California whose charter “deviates from” and “is at odds with” the state’s recall laws, the registrar wrote.

When asked if he was worried a change to the charter would shift a potential Price recall to November, Miley said he didn’t believe it was a concern.

“It’s just a matter of impracticality in the charter, the way the charter outlines it,” he said. “It would be almost an impracticality to put it on a March 5 election. There may be a special election, maybe, but I’m not even sure that will be the case if we’re aligning with a state law.”

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