The recall effort against California Gov. Gavin Newsom continues to outstrip expectations as organizers rocket past the signature threshold, but don’t underestimate the ability of state Democrats to claw back signatures.
Three years ago, when Democratic state Sen. Josh Newman was being targeted for recall, the Democratic-controlled state legislature revamped the election code to allow petition-signers to remove their support for up to 30 days after the signatures have been approved.
The rule change failed to save Mr. Newman — he was ousted in June 2018 — but Reform California founder Carl DeMaio raised concerns that the politician-friendly signature-recission window and other electoral shenanigans could wind up saving the embattled Newsom.
“It’s a trick that they put into law to try to protect politicians,” said Mr. DeMaio, who led the Newman recall. “And Newsom certainly has enough money to pay for a bunch of recission signature-gatherers to try to derail this.”
Once dismissed as a quixotic Republican fantasy, the gubernatorial recall has become frighteningly real for Democrats as Recall Gavin Newsom 2020 taps into voter frustration over the state’s strict pandemic shutdowns, amassing about 1,927,000 signatures as of Monday.
The campaign needs to submit 1,497,709 valid signatures by March 17, but the signature-validity rate as of Feb. 5 was a high 83.7%, according to a cumulative statewide summary filed with the Secretary of State’s office.
Still, there are plenty of pitfalls ahead. In addition to signature-recission, the 2017 changes added a 45-day period to study the fiscal impact of the recall, which politicos say offers an opportunity to manipulate the special-election date by, for example, consolidating it with a general election, when voter turnout is higher.
Recall veterans also worry about the all-mail ballot in a state with sloppy voter rolls and no restrictions on ballot harvesting.
Then there’s the state legislature, which didn’t hesitate to tinker with the recall rules — and then make the changes retroactive — in the middle of the Newman petition effort, despite pushback from even liberal news outlets over election integrity.
“They [Democratic legislators] tried a lot of weird tricks, and I fully anticipate they will try the same thing,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “If there’s any legislative maneuverability this time around, I am sure the legislature will take it to try to throw any roadblock in front of a recall of Gavin Newsom.”
California voters may withdraw signatures before petitions are submitted, but under the “supplemental signature withdrawal period,” they have an additional 30 business days after the secretary of state notifies counties that the signatures are sufficient.
Leading the anti-recall effort are the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) and the progressive group Courage California, which have urged voters to sign a petition to “say NO to the recall and YES to a better California for all of us.”
NUHW President Sal Rosselli said his organization does not coordinate with the Newsom administration, and as for signature-recission, “we are not planning on doing that,” although he didn’t rule it out.
“It’s natural to assume that many folks that are signing this don’t know what they’re signing, and they’re doing it because they’re being pressured by folks that are making a lot of money off of it,” Mr. Rosselli said. “So if the count is close, it probably would be appropriate to invoke that situation that you’re describing.”
At this point, however, he said “we’re just assuming it’s going to qualify, and that’s why we’re going full speed ahead, organizing voters now to be ready to oppose it.”
Persuading voters to rescind their signatures can be problematic for other reasons. The signed petitions aren’t available to the public, said Mr. Coupal, which means the best that recall foes can do is play the odds by circulating recission petitions in counties with high signature rates and hope for overlap.
“They tried it with the Josh Newman recall and it didn’t work,” said Mr. Coupal. “They made a big show of it, but a lot of the people who signed the recall petition, they knew exactly what they were signing and the reason they were signing it.”
That strategy could work if organizers barely clear the signature threshold, but one reason it failed with the Newman campaign is that the number of valid signatures submitted was well above the cut-off, said Mr. DeMaio, whose group is assisting the main Newsom recall campaign with signature-gathering.
“They started the recission while they were still collecting, but we turned in so many signatures that they realized, ah, they’re way ahead of us, there’s no way to stop it,” Mr. DeMaio said. “But I think they turned in a couple of thousand recission signatures, the vast majority of which did not match, of course.”
Opponents of the Newman recall “were hoping we had not done our due diligence in validating signatures and that maybe we had a high error rate. But our signatures came in at a high accuracy rate, so they weren’t able to succeed,” Mr. DeMaio said.
“That’s your best disinfectant against tricks and schemes is to come in with such an overwhelming number of signatures that they can’t stop you,” he said.
The same set of facts would appear to apply to the Newsom recall, although Mr. DeMaio noted that the governor is likely to have far more resources than a first-term state senator.
“I liken it to a tray of ice in the hot desert sun,” Mr. DeMaio said. “What they want to do is melt our signatures away through hook or crook, because that’s what they do. So it’s something that we certainly are bracing for.”
In his State of the State address delivered Wednesday, Mr. Newsom was upbeat as he touted California’s pandemic response, declaring there were “brighter days ahead” after nearly a year of novel coronavirus restrictions while acknowledging that “we’ve made mistakes. I’ve made mistakes.”
He alluded to the recall issue without mentioning it directly by saying the state “won’t change course just because of a few naysayers and dooms-dayers.”
“So to the California critics, who are promoting partisan power grabs and outdated prejudices, and rejecting everything that makes California great, we say this: We will not be distracted from getting shots in arms and our economy booming again,” Mr. Newsom said in the speech at Dodgers Stadium.
Randy Economy, senior adviser for the recall campaign and the California Patriot Coalition, the group behind the recall, said that “we are watching this process each and every step of the way.”
“Gavin Newsom is in full panic mode, and his political allies are going to do everything in their power to try to stop the almost 2 million California voters who have already signed his resignation papers during this phase of the campaign,” he said in an email. “The people of California are in charge of Gavin Newsom’s political career, not his handlers.”