California dispatches: the gubernatorial recall election is here and the stakes are very high
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California dispatches: the gubernatorial recall election is here and the stakes are very high

With this post, JURIST launches a new series of dispatches from major US states written by JURIST staff “on the ground” in those jurisdictions. JURIST Operations Director Ram Eachambadi files this report from Los Angeles.

Election day in California is here, thanks to the approximately 1.5 million signatures on a petition—a mere 12% of the votes cast in the 2018 gubernatorial election.

Such is the threshold for recall in California, and this would be California’s second recall episode. The first was a successful one in 2003 that removed former Governor Gray Davis from office and installed Hollywood actor Arnold Schwarzenegger in his place—in time to grant me an “autographed” baccalaureate degree way back when in his capacity as president of California State University’s board of trustees.

Many legal and political commentators are aware that the only way the GOP can win a gubernatorial election in California is through a recall. To put it bluntly, that is how “blue” the state of California is. In other words, California Democrats are exceedingly popular and control all three branches of government—i.e. executive, legislative, and judicial.

I remember the 2003 recall election and I can see the stark contrasts between that effort and the current one. This recall effort stands out because unlike with Davis in 2003, Governor Gavin Newsom is independently highly popular. So much so that Schwarzenegger, a lifelong (albeit Anti-Trump) Republican and a prior recall victor, is rumored to be unofficially advising Newsom on an appropriate strategy to survive the recall. If ever there was a bipartisan election strategy, this would be it, assuming it is true.

So why are the Republicans so successful in recalls if California Democrats are so popular and what are their chances this time 18 years later?

This is simply a function of voter turnout. Democrats are notorious for “not” turning up to vote, particularly in recall elections. One reason may be nothing more than ignorance and failure of the general citizenry to keep themselves informed of developments. Take the case of an acquaintance of my family in California who asked “What election?” when asked last week if they had voted yet. Another friend of a friend of the family “proudly” stated that he “doesn’t vote” because “it’s not his thing.”

Additionally, it has been reported that counties with a predominantly Latino population have the lowest voter turnouts. For example, Imperial County, where more than 80% of residents are Latino, has the lowest voter turnout at 10.5%. Contrast this to Sierra County, which has favored Republican candidates by more than 20 percentage points in the last two state elections—this county has the highest turnout with nearly 48% of ballots returned at the same point of time.

Granted, these figures were released Thursday and the latest polls suggest that Newsom will survive the recall. However, these poll figures need to be taken with some grain of salt considering that Democrats are much more likely to vote by mail while Republicans are likely to vote in person on the day of the election. That could potentially mean a surge in voter turnout from Republicans on Tuesday and that may be more than sufficient to remove Newsom from office.

What then? Who becomes Governor? Could it be a different Democratic candidate? If you are a California Democrat, you would know that this is not true. The ballot asks two questions: 1) Should the elected official be removed from office; and 2) If the official is removed, who should take their place? Anyone who answers no to the first question is still forced to proceed to the second and pick a candidate. Failure to do so will count in favor of the opposing party.

In other words, if more than 50% vote for the recall and those who voted against the recall failed to pick a different Democratic candidate in the second question, the opposing party will benefit because Newsom will “not” be listed as a choice in the second question.

Herein lies the problem. The democratic campaign against the recall, all bolstered by such high-profile political figures as former President Barrack Obama, current President Joe Biden, and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, has been telling voters to vote “No” in the first question and ignore rather than choose a different Democratic candidate in the second. This is a dangerous game being played by the Democrats, but one that may pay off considering voter confusion with the two-question format of the ballot.

Nevertheless, those against the recall are likely to/have ignore(d) the second question. On this assumption, if those who vote “yes” outnumber those who vote no, the GOP is sure to win.

That would mean the leading frontrunner of the GOP, Larry Elder, would become governor. Elder is an American conservative talk show host and this would be his first attempt at running for public office. Elder is known for his highly controversial views and has been aptly characterized by President Biden as a “clone of Donald Trump.”

Many well-informed Californian voters gravely and possibly rightfully fear an Elder regime in California. Elder wants California to follow the path of Texas and Florida by implementing bans on mask and vaccine mandates. Parents of young children, including some of my own family members, are already thinking about options to take their children out of school should such laws come into effect in California.

One might say this is an overreaction considering that the California legislature and the Supreme Court are predominantly controlled by Democrats—never mind the debate about whether the judiciary can be non-partisan. However, it may take weeks or months before a legislature can act to override a governor’s order banning mask and vaccine mandates. Similarly, it can take weeks or months before a lawsuit is filed and it makes its way to a court to get an injunction to block a governor’s order. During that gap, enough children in schools and enough adults in other gatherings can get infected and crowd hospitals or worse, die.

If that does not raise some eyebrows, Elder has recently proposed that former “slave-owners,” as opposed to descendants of former slaves, be paid reparations for the government’s forceful taking of their “property.”

Five years ago, I never imagined that a man who insulted a disabled individual would become the candidate for president. Until this year, I never expected that an African-American man who proposes reparations for slave-owners would become the frontrunner among 46 other candidates for gubernatorial elections in California. If anyone had told me this then, I would have said “You’re insane!”

But here we are. It is September 14—election day—and there may still be voters who are unaware that there is an election underway. If that does concern you as it should, spread the word so that enough voters get their votes in. If Elder wins the recall even with a high voter turnout, his term is highly likely to be short-lived. Elder would be foolish to deliver on his outrageous promises as his actions will be judged during the 2022 regular gubernatorial elections—where Democratic voter turnout is generally very high. If Newsom wins, both he and the rest of the California Democrats would be foolish to rest and would be wise to work towards putting the final nail in the GOP coffin in California.