CALIFORNIA’S FLAWED RECALL
Turn your mind to sunny California, home of beaches, films, and forest fires. Think of California with forty million people, most of them Democrats (California’s population is larger than all of Canada’s). Their Democratic governor is tall, handsome Gavin Newsom, a commanding presence right out of central casting. Despite his star appearance he seems to lack great personal charisma. Still, he is a great detail man who probably understands California’s challenges as well as anybody.
And he is in big trouble. With a little more than a year to go in his term Newsom is facing a recall vote. That recall has less to do with Newsom’s competence than it has to do with voter anger about the virus. The governor did make things worse by being spotted dining with a large wealthy group in the depths of the pandemic.
We are no longer in the age of Ronald Reagan. The Republican Party has been in a long term decline in California. They have seemed at times to have completely disappeared. In Sacramento, the Democrats have super-majorities in both houses of the legislature. Still, voters were upset enough with the Governor’s partying that they managed to get a million and a half voters to sign a recall petition.
Like so much else about California its recall system is almost unique. The ballots are sent to every voter in the mail. The voters already have them and can be voting right now for a recall that is officially held on September 14th. Candidates like Newsom with great amounts of money to spend (a reported forty five million dollars) like to build to a great crescendo just before voting day. That works less well when the voters have been sending in ballots for more than a month.
Those ballots allow each voter to vote twice. The ballot first asks the voter whether they think the Governor should be removed. So in order to vote for Newsom, they have to vote “no”. What that means in practice is that there are going to be a number of voters who want the Governor to stay who will instead vote for him to go.
If they vote for him to go they then can vote for an alternative. They will have the opportunity to vote for any one of forty six candidates. Almost all of those will be Republicans (or in some cases, unaffiliated individuals who want to see their name on a ballot). Serious Democrats would not want to be seen running against their own parties’ governor.
Gavin Newsom is virtually guaranteed to get the most votes but that may not matter. In order to remain in office he has to get at least fifty percent of all the votes cast. He has to get more votes than all forty six of his opponents combined. Any vote less than half means he has been removed from office. Then the one of the forty six with the most votes wins even if they have far less, say eighteen percent of the vote. Eighteen percent will defeat forty nine!
We do have a pretty good idea about who that person will be. All the current polls show that in the second place is Larry Elder. Larry Elders is a long-time Los Angeles talk show host. He presents himself as a kind of Black version of Donald Trump. He does take positions even more conservative than Trump’s (He favors a minimum wage of zero.).
Elder rocketed to the top the moment he entered the race. He had the advantage of a huge cadre of male listeners who sprang forth as supporters. For many potential Republican voters, Elder was the only candidate they had heard of. Many of his opponents were absolutely unknown. Those that were better known have never really caught fire.
Elder may have garnered more publicity than he would wish. He is being accused by a former wife of threatening her with a gun. It seems likely that Elder cannot be stopped even if more damaging information comes to light. Polls have given him about nineteen percent of the vote but his closest opponents score far less. With forty five rivals he could easily win with fifteen percent of the vote.
Gavin Newsom rose through a number of California offices as a friendly rival of Kamala Harris. He has vast experience and campaign money to burn. But, if he can’t get fifty percent, Elder will win with fifteen percent of the vote. Inattentive voters in sunny California who forget about that mailed ballot may find themselves governed by an inexperienced talk show host eager to undo all that liberal Californians have created.
Newsom’s campaign has become a continuous effort to make Elder better known. By highlighting Elder’s political positions and his domestic traumas the governor hopes to make Elder more unacceptable to voters. He, of course may inadvertently make Elder better known and increase his vote.
The real challenge for Newsom is to top fifty percent. If he does then Elder’s vote count won’t matter. If Newsom fails, any vote count by the unprepared Elder would probably put him in office. Elder’s one year in office (before the next regular election) would probably give him the distinction of being the last Republican California governor of this era.
There is the possibility that a victory of a candidate with so many fewer votes might be declared unconstitutional. The result would obviously violate the principle of majority rule (The only other time it was used Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced Grey Davis as governor in 2003. In that election Davis was very unpopular and the famous strongman came close to fifty percent.).
If you were Newsom think how frustrating all this would be! Still, he should not have been surprised. This is, after all, California. Stay tuned!!