California Recall: What to know about the effort to remove Gavin Newsom

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In this June 15, 2021 file photo California Governor Gavin Newsom gestures after a news conference at Universal Studios in Universal City, Calif. Photo by Ringo H.W. Chiu/AP Photo

California voters will decide Gov. Gavin Newsom’s fate September 14.

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis set the date for the recall election after the Department of Finance completed a cost estimate July 1 — notifying state lawmakers that the recall would cost state and county election officials $276 million to administer —  and the Secretary of State certified the recall petition. 

The election will be California’s first gubernatorial recall in nearly two decades and is sure to be an expensive one. Here’s what you need to know about the effort to recall and replace Newsom.

The recall election is set for September. What can we expect next?

Expect campaign season to ramp up hard and fast. 

Newsom and potential replacement candidates have just a little more than two months to make their case to voters, meaning Californians will soon be inundated by mailers and ads seeking support. 

“This Republican recall is a naked attempt by Trump Republicans to grab control in California,” said Juan Rodriguez, an advisor with Newsom’s campaign. “On September 14, Californians will have the chance to defend our state and reject this Republican power grab once and for all.”

While Newsom has tied the recall to Republican activists, his GOP challengers say it’s about more than politics — that California needs sweeping change. 

“I am ready to lead this recall and begin the California Comeback to clean up our streets, cut taxes on the middle class, and reopen our schools,” said former San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer. “Change is coming for California and retirement is coming for Gavin Newsom.” 

“Gavin Newsom will be recalled on September 14th,” said Jon Cox, a Republican businessman who lost the governorship to Newsom in 2018. “The insiders and allies have done their best to manipulate the election date for the pretty boy Governor, but it doesn’t matter. The people are tired of corruption and politicians who don’t deliver.” 

The September election was set after a lengthy process of signature gathering, verification, and cost estimation. Here’s a breakdown of the timeline:

  •  Signature Deadline: Recall organizers were required to turn in just under 1.5 million signatures from registered California voters by March 17. The organizers turned in more than 2.1 million, but more than 400,000 were deemed invalid and thrown out. 
  • ✅ Validation period: County election officials had several weeks to validate the signatures, then pass their numbers on to the Secretary of State’s office. 
  • ✅ Counties Get Notified: The Secretary of State had 10 business days to compile the numbers from counties and notify them that there are enough valid signatures to put the recall before voters.
  •  Withdrawal Period: Then from April 26 to June 8, anyone who signed the recall petition had the chance to withdraw their signature.
  • ✅ Checking Signature Count: At the end of the withdrawal period, county officials had until June 22 to let the Secretary of State know how many signatures were withdrawn. Only 43 were.
  •  Estimating Cost: If there are still enough valid signatures, the Secretary of State must “promptly” notify the Department of Finance, which then has 30 business days to estimate the cost of a recall election. On July 1, the agency informed state lawmakers the election would cost state and county election officials an estimated $276 million. 
  •  Legislature Comments: In late June, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that waives a 30-day legislative cost review period if the Legislature appropriates money for a recall election. Lawmakers earmarked $250 million for state and local election officials.
  • ✅ Election Called: After receiving a cost estimate, the Secretary of State certifies signatures. Then the Lt. Governor can call a recall election. It must be held within 60-80 days of the time signatures are certified. On July, Kounalakis set the election for Sept. 14.

What is a recall anyway, and how does it work?

California is one of 20 states that allow voters to recall their governor. The last time this happened in California was in 2003, when Gov. Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

To put a gubernatorial recall on the ballot, organizers must collect signatures equal to 12% of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election — that means they need at least 1,495,709 signatures from registered voters.

According to the final signature verification report from the Secretary of State, recall organizers turned in 2,161,349 signatures. Following verification and withdrawals, officials say 1,719,900 valid signatures remain. That means there are more than enough signatures to put a recall on the ballot.

During the recall, voters will be asked two questions:

  • Should the elected official be removed from office?
  • If the official is removed, who should take their place?

If more than 50% of voters answer “yes” to the first question, Newsom will be recalled, and the candidate who wins the most votes will replace him. A governor who is the subject of a recall cannot run as their own replacement. That means if a majority of Californians vote to recall Newsom, he will be removed from office — even if no replacement candidate receives more than 50% of the vote. 

Why is Newsom being recalled?

Organizers of the current recall movement say there are a list of reasons Californians signed their petitions: frustration over Newsom’s handling of the pandemic and business restrictions, worsening housing and homelessness crises, high taxes and cost of living, and more.

“This is about Gavin Newsom and his failed policies that have put us in the state of despair we are in today,” said Orrin Heatlie, the main proponent of the recall effort.

How is Newsom responding to the recall? 

Newsom has painted the recall movement as driven by political extremists, anti-vaccine activists, and national GOP figures who despise California politics. He’s launched a campaign to fend off the challenge, which he’s branded “the Republican recall.”

But this isn’t the first time Newsom’s critics have tried to recall him — many elected officials in the Golden State face recall petitions, though they rarely make it to the ballot. 

In fact, six separate recall papers have been filed against Newsom since he took office in 2019.

So what makes this recall different?

Recall organizers got approval from the state to begin gathering signatures in June 2020. They initially got 160 days to do that, which means they would have been required to turn all their petitions in by mid-November. 

Proponents had hoped to spend last summer gathering signatures at festivals and other large events. But, as they told a Sacramento Superior Court judge, that became difficult to do when COVID-19 struck.

The judge granted the campaign a 120-day extension of their original signature-gathering deadline. That gave them plenty of extra time to organize and collect voter signatures.

Political observers point out that the deadline extension came in November, around the time Newsom received enormous backlash for attending a group dinner at the French Laundry, a posh Napa Valley restaurant, while urging Californians not to gather with people outside their household.

Who’s running?

The deadline for candidates to file to run in the recall election was July 16, and so far 41 have been confirmed. 

The Secretary of State released a list July 18 of all the candidates who filed the proper paperwork to run as a possible replacement for Newsom. It includes candidates who’ve already been campaigning — including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, reality star Caitlyn Jenner, and businessman John Cox.

Notably absent from the list is conservative radio host Larry Elder, who announced he would run last week. Elder insists he submitted the proper paperwork. He also noted the list isn’t final — and says he expects to be on it when it’s certified on July 21.

Also absent from the list: any establishment Democrats. Newsom is backed by the party and appears to have fended off a challenge. That also means Democratic voters won’t have an establishment backup candidate to support if Newsom is recalled.

In 2003, the ballot listed a total of 135 gubernatorial hopefuls in the effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis. 

What are the fundraising rules for a recall?

As the target of a recall, Newsom doesn’t have to comply with fundraising limits as he would in a regular election. It’s a huge advantage that could allow the defending governor to amass mountains of cash. Already, he’s received several big donations topping $1 million. Other candidates hoping to replace the governor are subject to regular campaign finance limits.

Who’s supporting the recall and who’s against it?

A number of groups and individuals have already donated money toward either supporting or opposing the recall, or issued public statements about it. Here’s a look at where things stand:

Supporting the recall:

  • Republican National Committee, which spent $250,000 encouraging people to sign the recall petition. 
  • California Republican Party, which has so far donated more than $175,000 to recall groups. 
  • GOP figures including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has donated $100,000 through his PAC
  •  Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya donated $100,000 to recall groups and briefly considered jumping into the race himself

Opposing the recall:

  • President Joe Biden
  • A coalition of national Democratic figures including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Georgia organizer Stacey Abrams added their names early on to a campaign fighting the recall
  • The California Democratic Party has dropped nearly $750,000 into the anti-recall campaign.
  • Other big donors to Newsom include Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who gave $3 million, and the California Association of Realtors, which gave $1.5 million. 
  • Labor icon Dolores Huerta and labor groups for teachers and health care workers say they oppose the recall.

Campaign finance data comes from Cal-Access

Although Los Angeles County collected the most signatures at 264,495, the most per capita came from counties in the Sierra Foothills and Northern California, with SierraCounty receiving the highest at 13.5 signatures per 100 residents.

Polls suggest a majority of California voters want to keep Newsom in office, though voters are deeply divided along partisan lines. The Public Policy Institute of California’s May survey found 57% of likely voters would support Newsom in a recall election, while 40% would vote to recall him.

According to an analysis by PPIC president Mark Baldassare, those numbers square with the state’s political makeup. An overwhelming majority of Republican voters — 78% — would vote to recall Newsom compared to 86% of Democratic voters who would vote to keep the governor.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified what office would call the recall special election once it's certified. That is the Lieutenant Governor.