California’s Recall Election, Explained

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Californians will go to the polls Tuesday, Sept. 14 to determine whether Gov. Gavin Newsom deserves to keep his job after a well-coordinated, right-wing effort gathered enough signatures to force a recall. Even though Newsom won his first run for the governor’s office in 2018 by more than 22 percent of the vote over his GOP opponent, he risks losing his office to a fraction of the nearly 13 million people who went to the polls some two years ago.

Newsom’s most formidable Republican opponent, right-wing radio host and Cali’s favorite Uncle Tom, Larry Elder, is polling in a dead heat with Newsom. He leads the 46 candidates who have thrown their hat into the recall race by a large margin. Though polls reveal that Newsom should survive the recall effort, it is not a sure bet. Organizers who are urging people to head to the polls Tuesday tell The Root that residents may be fatigued after coming out in historic numbers in 2020 to elect Joe Biden and that most of them are used to turning out during presidential and midterm years, not special elections that pop up like this recall effort.

To be clear, this is a Republican, Trump-inspired effort to oust a sitting Democrat in a liberal state and this recall effort is the only reason the GOP has a shot at running the state. To better break down the stakes, we will explain the stakes and break down how disastrous Elder could be for the state of California.

How does California’s recall election work?

According to law professors Erwin Chemerinsky and Aaron S. Edlin who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, there will be two questions on the ballot Tuesday. The first question asks should Newsom be removed from office. Voting no means you support him keeping his seat; voting yes means you want him removed. The second question is based on plurality, meaning whichever candidate gets the most votes, even if it is much less than a majority, will become California’s next chief executive. Newsom is not on the ballot for this second question, making it critical that more than 50 percent of people vote “no” on the first question.

“By conducting the recall election in this way, Mr. Newsom can receive far more votes than any other candidate but still be removed from office,” Edlin and Chemerinsky said in the Times. “Many focus on how unfair this structure is to the governor, but consider instead how unfair it is to the voters who support him.”

A lawsuit was filed against the recall effort but a federal judge dismissed the case last month.

Newsom is the fourth governor in U.S. history to face a recall; two were recalled, including Gray Davis who lost to Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003 after voters blamed him for the electricity crisis.

Why in the hell are Californians voting for governor for the second time in two years?

Thank ex-cop Orrin Heatlie, who told the Associated Press that he was pissed at Newsom after watching him during a newscast, in 2019, instruct undocumented immigrants not to open their doors to law enforcement unless they had a warrant. Heatlie only needed 1,495,709 signatures to put the recall on the ballot; he ended up with more than 2 million.

Keep in mind that much of the GOP in the state was outraged by Newsom’s mask mandates to control the pandemic, and the rallying call that put the signature requirement over the top came after he was seen at one of California’s most expensive restaurants maskless. Though nearly 18 million voters showed up to the polls in California last year, which is the highest percentage of electoral participation since 1952, a fraction of that number is expected to cast ballots Tuesday.

“So that means you can effectively have a minority of the population that elects a person that does not represent the majority,” said Kendrick Robinson, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University and labor activists who has been organizing communities of color to vote. “But the way the system is set up, we can have as little as 5 percent of California voters deciding to have a Republican candidate in office, and in this case it will be Larry Elder. And that is a very real consequence that we don’t want to have to face. We don’t want to have to deal with the consequences that come with not getting enough turnout in this election.”

Who is Larry Elder and why is he leading in the polls?

Elder is a Black, conservative radio host who has never run for elected office, has said very xenophobic things about immigrants, and has vowed to reverse any mask mandates Newsom has enacted. According to the Guardian, he has blamed former President Barack Obama for the deaths of George Floyd and other Black men, saying they should have simply complied with the cops’ orders before being killed. He also has said that Black folks are more prone to crime and violence than other races and voiced some of Trump’s talking points about Latinx folks being criminals. He wrote in his 2001 book that “Blacks are more racist than whites.”

In a regular election, Elder would be a non-factor. But in a special election with low turnout (as we know, the GOP loves low turnout because it favors their chances and they admit as much) and a ginned up right wing base, he has a shot. He has called Trump “almost God-sent” and if he wins somehow, he will have to fight a supermajority in Sacramento, but he’d be able to line-item veto many of the bills that hit his desk. Not even the president of the United States has that power.

Melina Abdullah, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, calls Elder the Black face of white supremacy and warns that he would reverse much of the progressive policies people of color activists have fought for, especially on criminal justice reform. She mentioned an interview he had with Candace Owens in which he said reparations should be paid to slave owners.

“These are the kinds of things that he believes in, Abdullah said. “He would use the power of the line-item veto to make sure that any funding for public services is cut. He’d made sure that the mask mandate in California is cut. He’s trying to rollback some of the criminal justice reforms that we’d just recently won. So these are the kinds of things that are at stake. So Larry Elder, in my view, is just as dangerous, if not more than Donald Trump.”

Why should the rest of America care?

Well, it will signal to other Republicans around the country that they can undermine the integrity of duly elected officials they do not like by finding loopholes in state and local laws to win office with fewer votes than they’d ordinarily need. The higher the turnout, the less likely the GOP is to win. We know that Trump tried and failed dozens of times to sue several counties in states around the country over false claims of voter fraud. He lost 61 out of 62 of those cases. In states like TexasMichigan and Georgia, Republican state legislatures are passing restrictive voter ID laws that make it harder for people to vote.

“Everybody’s very clear that there’s not enough Republican support to elect a Republican candidate here in California right now,” Robinson said. “If the Republicans organized and won the elections fair and square like all the other governors, then I’m cool with that. That means that the people that live here want to change. But in this particular process, they’re stealing away what the people voted for. And that’s where this becomes extremely problematic and detrimental to what we would think as a democratic society.”

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