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California’s Recall Process Makes No Sense

The official list of candidates looking to replace California governor Gavin Newsom in the September recall election includes 46 names. It’s a colorful group, featuring reality star Caitlyn Jenner; Adam Papagan, an “entertainer” whose candidate statement just reads “Love U”; and criminal defense attorney Dan Kapelovitz, whose statement asks voters, “Can you dig it?”

Jokes aside, Newsom does face a real threat in the September 14 recall election. Even though he won in a landslide victory in 2018, he has faced a legitimate challenge from Larry Elder, a conservative radio host running to replace him in the governor’s mansion.

In the United States, 19 states have a recall process in which an elected state official can be removed from government and replaced, usually via a ballot measure or special election. But, as Joshua Spivak, author of Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton to Gavin Newsom, explains, recalls are not widely used even in the states that have this process.

“Recalls do give people the power to remove one elected official or whole school boards, but so far recalls haven’t resulted in such a large-scale change on a local or national level,” Spivak tells Teen Vogue.

In California, however, every governor for the past 60 years has faced a recall attempt. The state requires signatures from 12% of the people who voted in California’s last gubernatorial election in order to qualify for a ballot, which consists of two questions: The first asks voters if they’d like to recall the governor; the second asks voters to pick who they want to replace the incumbent if they are removed from office.

Most remarkably, the system for recalling the governor operates on a plurality, not a majority vote. This means that if the majority of voters say they would like to replace Newsom, a candidate would only need to get more votes than the other people running against Newsom to become governor.

“So, even if Newsom gets 49.9% of the vote, his [opponent] could get less than 3% of the vote on the second question and replace him,” Spivak says.

The worry for many Democrats is that the governor will not receive enough votes on the first question to stay in power. While recent polling data shows that more than half of likely voters plan to vote “no” in the recall, a lack of awareness about the election and its unusual process may lead to lower voter turnout for blocs who are likely to support the governor.

“The electorate is at a disadvantage when it comes to any special election,” says Mindy Romero, the director of the University of Southern California’s Center for Inclusive Democracy. “This recall is in a month when there are no [other] elections. I bet you most Californians still don’t know when the recall election actually is — and if they’re paying attention, they’ve probably struggled to find that exact date.”

According to Romero, there were two main factors that made this recall possible. In November, due to the pandemic, the deadline to collect signatures needed for the measure was extended. On the same day that this extension was granted, Newsom was spotted having dinner at the French Laundry, an upscale restaurant in Napa Valley. The governor was accused of not following his pandemic safety recommendations for Californians, like wearing masks, social distancing, and not eating indoors.

Newsom later apologized, but it was too late: The measure to recall the governor gained over half a million signatures in one month.

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