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How California Democrats could delay a Gavin Newsom recall

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 2/22/2021 Sophia Bollag, The Sacramento Bee

Feb. 22—Democrats can't control whether an effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom qualifies for the ballot, but they could influence when Californians vote.

If recall supporters collect enough signatures to trigger a special election, they will set in motion a process that could result in a vote later this year. The Democratic governor could be removed from office if a majority of voters cast their ballots for the recall.

Democrats, who dominate statewide elected offices and the Legislature in California, will carry out the process at every level. They will have some discretion over how quickly they act, although they will be subject to deadlines set in state law.

They can't stop a recall, but they could delay one.

Potential for delay

The only time a governor has been recalled was in 2003, when voters chose Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace Democrat Gray Davis. Republicans who oppose Newsom want to repeat history this year, and have poured money into an effort to get rid of him.

The timing of such an election could help determine Newsom's fate. The California Target Book, which analyzes and tracks political races, conducted an analysis that found the recall could be held in November. But experts caution it's too soon to say exactly when it would happen.

A later election might give opponents more time to raise money and build a case against him.

Pushing a recall to the latest possible date might help him, however, if the pandemic is easing and COVID-19 restrictions are lifting.

And state Democrats have moved to delay a recall election before.

Political observers point to the recall of Sen. Josh Newman in 2018, after he voted to raise gas taxes and raise DMV fees.

The year before, as it became clear recall supporters were on track to qualify that effort, Democrats passed legislation that delayed the recall by adding a 30-day period for people to withdraw signatures and additional time for a cost estimate and a legislative review period.

"We can just look at what happened on the Newman recall a few years ago to see examples of what they can do," said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political strategist not involved in the Newsom recall effort.

The new rules effectively delayed the Newman recall until the next regularly scheduled primary election, when Democrats were more likely to vote. Newman was recalled, then reelected to the seat last year.

Newman said he didn't craft the legislation that delayed his recall, and noted that the blowback from critics who said it was improper for Democrats to change the rules as the recall was proceeding possibly hurt him.

"I don't think it materially changed the outcome," Newman said of the delay. "I know it didn't help me, because I lost."

Newman pushed back on the criticism from Republicans that it's inappropriate for Democrats to try to manipulate the timing of a recall, saying that the recall effort itself is an attempt to challenge Newsom in a special election when the timing will be more favorable for Republicans.

"There's a bit of crocodile tears going on," said Newman, D-Fullerton. "In fact, these folks are gaming the rules in the first place."

Stutzman said he doesn't think delaying a recall would help Newsom, but it's hard to say.

"If you delay it and vaccines have been distributed and kids are back in schools and the world has returned to being more normal, there's a good chance some of the pressure bearing down on the governor could be alleviated," Stutzman said. But, "if kids are not back in school, then it could help cook his goose."

A few weeks ago, Stutzman said he doubted the recall would qualify. But after seeing how successful their signature-gathering strategy appears to be, he now thinks it will.

The recall campaign wants to collect 2 million raw signatures by the first week in March to force an election this year, said Randy Economy, senior adviser to the effort.

Dave Gilliard, a strategist working on the recall, said high-dollar contributions in recent weeks have allowed the campaign to hire professionals to collect signatures on the streets, although most of the operation's work is still being done by mail. At this point, he's "very confident" the measure will qualify.

Gilliard said he thinks it's likely Democrats will try to manipulate the timing, but the campaign still projects the election would be held in late summer or early fall.

Could the recall be delayed until 2022?

Economy said he's concerned the Democrats will try to push the recall into 2022, but he said that type of "political stunt" won't sit well with voters.

That would theoretically be possible if Democrats who control the Legislature passed a law to move the state's June 2022 primary elections earlier in the year. State law allows recall elections to be consolidated with regularly scheduled elections if they would occur within 180 days of a scheduled election.

But delays in the federal census will likely block Democrats from moving up the primary. That's because the state must redraw its state and congressional districts in time for the 2022 elections.

Given how long California's redistricting panel will need to draw the new maps, and how long candidates will need to declare their intention to run in the new districts, it will be hard to be ready in time for even the June primary, said Sen. Steve Glazer, an Orinda Democrat who chairs the state Senate's elections committee.

"Given the substantial delay in getting census data for the redistricting process, we are going to be hard pressed to have districts that candidates can run in in a June primary, let alone anything earlier," Glazer said.

Tom Hiltachk, a lawyer who worked on the Newman recall effort, said he thinks its unlikely Democrats will be able to change the primary because of the census issue. But he cautioned that they could still come up with other ways to delay the election.

"Recent history suggests there's almost no limits to their creativity or imagination in finding a way to derail or delay the voters' exercise of their recall power," he said.

Recall deadlines in state law

Recall supporters must turn in their signatures by March 17. County elections officials must determine how many signatures are valid and report their signature counts by April 29, after which the Secretary of State's office will have 10 calendar days to determine if the effort met the 1.45 million signature threshold.

Then, people who signed the petition would have 30 business days to remove their signatures. Counties have 10 business days after that to report any signature removals to the Secretary of State.

At that point, the California Department of Finance would have 30 business days to develop a cost estimate for the recall election, which the Legislature would have 30 days to review.

Finally, the clock starts for the lieutenant governor to schedule a recall election within 60-80 days.


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