CA recall election special: Why so many CA politicians are targeted, and what you can expect

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Supporters of the recall campaign of California governor Gavin Newsom prepare for the upcoming recall election with a rally and information session in Carlsbad, California, U.S., June 30, 2021. Photo by Mike Blake/Reuters.

California has recall fever. More than 70 elected officials across the state have faced recall efforts since the beginning of this year, most notably Governor Gavin Newsom. Petitions are circulating right now to oust three members of the LA City Council: Mike Bonin, Nithya Raman and Kevin de León. And some Californians have been pushing to remove George Gascon as LA County’s district attorney since he took office this year. 

Why are so many politicians facing recall threats? KCRW gets political analysis and historical context from Loyola Marymount University political science professor Fernando Guerra, UC Davis history professor Kathryn Olmsted, former LA City Council member Jan Perry, and reporter Jon Regardie.

California’s new governor could get less than 50% of the vote

If the majority of voters choose to recall Governor Newsom, the candidate selected as his successor could win with less than half the vote.

It’s happened before. California's first-ever gubernatorial recall election was held in 2003 and resulted in Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger replacing Democratic Governor Gray Davis. Although 55.4% voted “yes” to recall Davis, Schwarzenegger won with only 48.6% of the vote

“It is very difficult for the candidate that wins that second question [on the ballot] to have a vast majority of the votes,” says Fernando Guerra, professor of political science and director of the Center of the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. That’s due to the number of candidates in the ring (45 candidates in 2021, plus write-ins).

Expect low turnout

Guerra says voter turnout in 2003 was 61%, which was high. He says Schwarzenegger’s star power drove the turnout more than today’s Republican candidates. “If this 2021 recall of Newsom gets a turnout of 61%, it will be easy for Newsom to beat this recall back.”

Guerra says Latino voters tend to decide late, and thus Newsom should focus his attention on them. He notes that Latinos’ voting decisions are influenced by civic organizations, community networks, the media, and other Latino elected officials. 

“The question for Newsom’s campaign is not ‘is he going to get the majority of Latino voters?’ I think that's a given. The question is ‘can he get the turnout?’”

Three LA City Council members are targeted for recalls  

Nithya Raman represents the fourth district (central LA, southern San Fernando Valley, and eastern Santa Monica Mountains) and was elected in 2020, and now a petition is underway to make a recall election happen. That requires getting 24,405 signatures by November 4, explains reporter Jon Regardie.

Mike Bonin represents the 11th district (Brentwood, Mar Vista, Marina Del Rey) and has served two full terms. Regardie says 27,317 signatures must be gathered by November 10 for him to face an election. 

Kevin de León represents the 14th district (downtown LA, Boyle Heights, Highland Park) and was elected in 2020. But the signature gathering stage isn’t happening yet. 

Regardie says, “What's interesting is that you have two very new Council members and you also have some of the more progressive members of the City Council being targeted in these recall efforts.” 

LA had the nation’s first recall in 1904

LA was the first major city in the U.S. to adopt the recall. It was voted on and approved by the new City Charter in 1903. Angelenos first used the recall in 1904 to oust City Council member James Davenport

“It was the first city to adopt the recall and the first city to successfully use the recall,” says Kathryn Olmsted, history professor at UC Davis and author of “Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism.”

Over the next seven years, more than 20 other cities across the state adopted similar measures

It’s easier than ever to vote

Many of California’s eligible voters have already gotten their recall ballots by mail, and those ballots must be returned and postmarked by September 14 to be counted. 

“There's no excuse not to vote,” says Perry. “I was thrilled when I put mine in the mail and then got the text back from the county that it had already gone into the hopper and was being logged in. It was a safe process. And I think that's something that needs to be emphasized. Vote by mail, get it in, put it in a mailbox, and you will get a text back knowing that your vote will be counted.”