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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

California’s Strange Recall Ballot

After getting my mail ballot for the September 14 gubernatorial recall election in California, I offered some reactions at New York:

Over the weekend I received (like 22 million other registered voters in my state) an unsolicited mail ballot to vote in the California gubernatorial recall election. I’ve been reading and writing about this election for months. But I couldn’t help but find the actual ballot weird, and remain a bit conflicted about how to fill out and return it.

Typically, California primary or general election ballots have a lot of questions, in part thanks to the state’s permissive rules on ballot initiatives. The recall ballot has exactly two:

Shall GAVIN NEWSOM be recalled (removed) from the Office of Governor?

Candidates to succeed GAVIN NEWSOM if he is recalled:

Following this second question (and the instruction to “Vote for One”) is a list of 46 names, with each candidate’s party preference (if any), and brief self-descriptions. These are highly restricted in practice: former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, for example, is identified simply as as a “Businessman/Educator,” while the iconic erotic billboard figure and singer Angelyne is described simply as an “Entertainer.”

Now the number and variety of candidates is not that strange in California these days; thanks to the top-two primary system the state has utilized since 2011, a large jumble of candidates from every and no party appears on primary ballots regularly. But the contrast between one stark binary ballot question and one with luxurious options is jarring, and potentially confusing. Yes, if you read the county voting instructions that accompany the mail ballot (and don’t throw them out on purpose or by accident), you will see that “Each question will be counted independently,” whatever that means, and that “You may vote for a successor candidate regardless of whether or how you vote on the recall question.” The alert voter will realize that she may vote to keep Newsom in office and still express an opinion on a successor, but it’s unclear how many such voters will exercise that choice since Team Newsom is discouraging it as a matter of message discipline.

The big question, however, is how many and which voters will bother to participate in this confusing election. Politically active California Republicans may be super-psyched to send back their mail ballots (despite the disdain their hero the 45th president held for this method of voting), since it is a rare opportunity to register a statewide victory in a place where they are outnumbered two-to-one in party registration, hold no statewide offices, and are on the losing side of a supermajority in both chambers of the state legislature. Pure partisanship aside, Gavin Newsom is sort of a parody of everything today’s Republicans are prone to hate: a wealthy and culturally hip man from Sodom itself (San Francisco), who looks like he stepped out of an upscale fashion ad and oozes superiority, along with a conventionally liberal viewpoint on nearly everything.

Unfortunately for Newsom, there is another category of highly motivated recall voter that includes independents and Democrats as well as Republicans: people who are enduringly angry about restrictive COVID-19 measures. This includes small business owners forced to shut down or radically restrict operations; parents compelled to keep and educate kids at home; and church members shunted into parking lots or virtual services. The late-2020 incident wherein the governor disobeyed his own pandemic rules by attending an indoor birthday party for a rich lobbyist friend at one of the world’s most exclusive restaurants pulled together all the threads of Newsom-phobia and made him a cartoon villain to his detractors and an exasperating figure to his allies.

Until recently it looked like vaccinations (which, after a rough start, went relatively well in California) and a revenue boom that enabled both free spending and a balanced budget might dull resentment of the incumbent. But now the resurgence of both COVID cases and California malaise (fed by another megadrought, wildfires, spiraling living costs, and homelessness) is energizing recall supporters without necessarily arousing opponents.

Newsom has consistently campaigned against the recall as an effort by Republican Trump supporters to overturn the will of the voters who elected the governor in 2018, and even as sort of a ballot-box version of the Capitol riot in Washington. As part of this deliberate polarization effort, he successfully kept any prominent Democrat from running as a replacement candidate. This was in keeping with the common belief that earlier recall victim Gray Davis’s ejection from office in 2003 was attributable to his Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante’s decision to file as a replacement candidate, splitting (or at least confusing) Democrats fatally. More recently, Newsom has instructed Democratic voters to ignore those 46 names that take up the bulk of the ballot, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

“Voters who choose to keep Newsom as governor by voting ‘no’ on the first question can still select a replacement candidate on the second question if the recall prevails. Even so, the governor has urged Democrats to skip the replacement contest — and did so again Saturday.

“’One question. One answer. No on the recall. Move on. Send in the ballot,’ Newsom said during the event in El Sereno. ‘We’ve got to turn out the vote and remind people of the consequences.’”

But California Democrats may be unable to entirely ignore that second ballot question, which could determine whether their future governor is the old guy (John Cox) who is campaigning with a rented grizzly bear; the transgender activist, former Olympian, and reality-TV star (Caitlyn Jenner); or even the rare Democrat (YouTube financial adviser Kevin Paffrath), who disobeyed the party line and is running in the replacement race. Despite his stern instructions to ignore the second ballot question, Newsom himself has been bashing the candidate who leads most polls, veteran conservative talk-show host Larry Elder, who, like most veteran conservative talks-show hosts, has said a lot of stupid and profoundly unpopular things over the years.  And down the stretch, Team Newsom could decide an ace in the hole is the argument that, even if he is recalled, his support will dwarf the small number of Californians voting for the plurality winner of the replacement contest. Even though it’s how California’s system is set up, it ain’t right.

As the official election date of September 14 approaches, the recall campaign will heat up and that, Democrats hope, will save Newsom by waking up their voters to the disastrous local and national consequences of messing up the party’s current control of America’s preeminent blue state — the state that contributed 5 million to Joe Biden’s 7 million-vote national popular vote advantage last year. The polls are beginning to show a close race that could go either way. But staring at my mail ballot, I can’t say we really know how voters will navigate this strange  set of choices.

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