Gov. Gavin Newsom’s most formidable challenger in the Sept. 14 recall election is not radio host Larry Elder, former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer or any of the other 44 replacement candidates on the ballot, though they may like voters to think so.
Nope, the biggest threat to Newsom — and to Californians — is voter apathy.
The people motivated to remove Newsom in this two-question special recall election are those who have the most to gain politically.
That would be California Republicans, who haven’t won a statewide election since 2006 — and are unlikely to do so in a regular election because their ranks have dropped to less than a quarter of registered voters. The strange nature of the recall gives them a rare shot of slipping in a candidate who, should the recall succeed, doesn't need to get 50% of the votes to become governor.
(We believe that scenario is bizarre and anti-democratic and warrants reforming the recall rules. A federal court in Northern California has just been asked to declare the process unconstitutional because Newsom could be replaced by someone who receives fewer votes.)
All of the leading candidates are Republicans, and that’s no surprise. Democrats and independents outnumber Republicans by nearly 3 to 1 in California, but they just aren’t all that jazzed about Newsom one way or the other. Nor are they even paying much attention to the recall. And the Democratic Party, in its hubris, has failed to put up a credible alternative.
The recall election organizers say that plenty of Democrats and independents signed the petition to force a recall election. And that may be true, though there’s no way to check whether they accounted for a significant number of signers. In any case, signing a petition for a hypothetical recall of an imperfect governor is a far cry from casting an actual ballot for a Republican.
Polls over recent months have consistently given Newsom the edge — but one that has been shrinking as the election approaches. The most recent poll found that 52% of likely voters don’t favor recall. That's within the margin of error and of little comfort.
Besides, there's no telling how many voters will actually cast a ballot in this unusual summer election, though it couldn't be easier with ballots being mailed to everyone who is registered. Special elections generally have lower participation than regular elections, but gubernatorial recalls are an exception.
In fact, the only successful gubernatorial recall in the state's history in 2003 drew phenomenal turnout — 9.4 million votes, compared with the 7.7 million votes cast in the regular gubernatorial election the year before. But how much of that was driven by fans of movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, rather than foes of then-Gov. Gray Davis, we will never know.
What we do know is that 22 million Californians are registered to vote, and 46.5% of them are Democrats and nearly a quarter more are unaffiliated with a political party. We also know that they already have begun receiving ballots in the mail. And we know that if a substantial portion of Democrats and independents choose not to return those ballots, Newsom may lose, throwing the state into months of turmoil.
If the recall succeeds, Newsom's replacement would almost certainly be a Republican who will dismantle the pandemic restrictions that have protected California from the worst effects of the Delta variant of the coronavirus. Newsom's successor would probably reverse the important environmental protections and other Democratic priorities. What is particularly troubling is that an extremist like Elder is leading the pack, and his campaign has struck a distinctly Trumpian tone of late by refusing to speak to journalists whom he perceives to be insufficiently complimentary.
We have urged voters to say no to the recall on the first question and to hold their noses and select Faulconer — the least bad option on the list of replacements, on the second. Lodging a protest vote by writing in, say, Tom Hanks or SpongeBob SquarePants might feel good in the moment, but it’s as much a cop out as not voting for a replacement at all. Don’t do it.
But do vote. For the sake California, for the sake of stability, don’t sit this one out.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.