SAVE THE DATE: California’s Governor Recall Election on September 14, 2021 (Part 1)

Part I of II

Last year, the U.S. endured a political battle unlike any before. More voters than ever showed up, especially voters of color. The Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community saw the biggest increase in voter turnout—an 11% increase for Asian Americans and 14% for Pacific Islanders. The message was clear: API Americans are here to stay and make their votes known, too. 

Out of all 50 states, the majority of Asian Americans reside in California—an overwhelmingly blue state. Talks of “battleground” states last year focused on practically anywhere else, where Republican and Democrat populations were close in number. In California, where there are 22 million registered voters, 46.1% were registered Democrat while 24.2% were registered Republican in 2020. (Another 24% were registered “No Party Preference.”) 

In 2021, California is the new battleground state on the block. And people don’t even realize it. 

On September 14, 2021, California will hold a gubernatorial (governor) recall election, in which Californians will vote whether to recall (remove) the current governor, Gavin Newsom, and, if he is recalled, who should succeed him.

Newsom kicking off his anti-recall campaign in San Francisco, CA on August 13th, joined by Democrats Chesa Boudin, Malia Cohen, London Breed, and Scott Wiener. (Source: Mercury News)

The polls are close. There are 46 candidates running to replace Newsom—many Republicans and many without previous political experience. In a lot of ways, it feels like 2003 all over again. This election will cost the state $276 million—and we’re still navigating a global pandemic. 

How Did We Get Here?

The state of California gives voters the power to recall and replace the sitting governor should they see fit, if:

1. They gather enough signatures for a special recall petition in a certain period of time, and then...

2. The majority votes to recall the governor in a special election later that same year.

Only a simple majority—anything greater than 50%—is needed to successfully recall the governor. Neither the California Constitution nor the Elections Code specify when a recall is justified; if the voters believe a recall is warranted and gather the necessary signatures to trigger a special election, that’s it.

The Recall Newsom Campaign needed 1,495,970 signatures to trigger the election; they submitted 2.1 million, 1,719,943 of which were validated by the California Secretary of State’s office. 

So, why do two million voters want to recall Newsom? 

A summary of the Recall Gavin Newsom Campaign’s issues with Newsom. They believe his policies, especially regarding COVID-19, have “destroyed the lives” of Californians. (Source: Recall Gavin Newsom Campaign)

The short answer: a lot of Californians, especially conservatives, oppose Newsom’s COVID-19 policies and “stay-at-home” orders. Newsom enforced a mask mandate for over a year, closed several businesses for most of 2020 (such as indoor gyms and movie theaters), restricted indoor and outdoor dining options, and more. Though the state officially “reopened” on June 15th of this year, some rules have returned in response to the quickly spreading Delta variant; in Los Angeles County, for example, the indoor mask mandate has returned, regardless of people’s vaccination status. 

The long answer: the mostly GOP-led Recall Newsom Campaign actually formally started in February 2020 with common GOP concerns—such as gun control and immigration. But it really gained traction as the pandemic consumed most of 2020. 

Aside from Newsom’s COVID-19 policies, the recall campaign points to other issues they’ve had with Newsom, such as the growing unhoused population and the increasing cost of living in the state. They also emphasize Newsom’s hypocrisy in November 2020, when he attended a large, indoor dinner party, void of masks, despite his own orders to Californians to stay home and stay masked when outside of your home at the time. 

“We deserve better,” the Recall Newsom Campaign stated in their recall argument. “We deserve a Governor who will be honest with us. Someone who will work to solve our state’s very real problems: the cost of living, homelessness, crime, failing schools.”

Newsom has acknowledged he’s made some mistakes in his term—he was elected governor in 2018—but he doesn’t believe it warrants a recall. He announced in March 2021 he would fight it.

Has This Happened Before?

There have been 55 attempts to recall the sitting governor in California since 1911. The Recall Newsom Campaign is only the second to make it to ballot.

The first successful gubernatorial recall was in October 2003, against Democratic Governor Gray Davis. At the time, California experienced a power crisis that resulted in rolling blackouts, which many voters pinned the blame for on Davis. 

Voters successfully recalled Davis in a majority vote, 55.4% to 44.6%. He was replaced by Terminator actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, out of the 135 candidates (yes, you read that right) who ran. Schwarzenegger received 48.58% of votes, putting him over one million votes ahead of runner-up Cruz Bustamante.

Schwarzenegger went on to remain governor—or as I remember him being called in my childhood, the “Governator” (yes, I do hate it here)—for eight years, until he reached his term limit in 2011. During his terms, Schwarzenegger struggled to manage one of the largest economies in the world. By the end of his time as governor, Schwarzenegger had tripled California’s debt with his budgeting. 

California is an overwhelmingly majority blue state. So, what the hell happened? 

I ask my mom, who voted against the recall in 2003, because she can’t help but recall (see what I did there?) 2003 as the 2021 Special Election looms. 

She’s always felt the political significance of the 2003 Special Election was undermined by the fact that Schwarzenegger, a movie star, was running. He had little political experience before running, so his campaign heavily depended on the clout from his film career—which won over a lot of voters. Schwarzenegger already being a household name made him stand out from the 134 other candidates. I remember my mom expressing this same concern when Trump ran for president in 2016 as well, and we all know how that turned out.

But even more pressing, my mom believes the main issue in 2003 was voter turnout—a major concern this time around, too. When I looked into it more, I was shocked: only about nine million people voted in the 2003 recall, out of the 15 million registered voters (~61%) in California at the time. By comparison, in 2020, nearly 17.8 out of 22 million registered Californians (~80%) voted in the General Election. 

As stated before, only a simple majority vote is needed to recall the governor. Even scarier is how few voters are needed to choose the replacement. There is no threshold of votes that the candidates running to succeed Newsom need to reach to secure the position for themselves. Meaning, if Newsom is recalled, someone with as little as 10-20% of the vote, if not smaller, could become governor. California is a diverse state of 40 million people—the highest state population in the country. 

Imagine less than 10 million people choosing the governor for all 40 million of us.

The Special Election could also not come at a more bizarre time. During the 2003 recall, Davis was not even a year into his second term as governor, after being re-elected in 2002. His replacement would at least have the remaining three years to effect the change they wanted. Meanwhile, Newsom is up for re-election in 2022; if he is replaced now, his replacement will only serve the final year of his term, then run for re-election in 2022 themself. We could be spending millions to elect a governor who will only serve for a single year.

Today’s circumstances could not be more different from 2003. While the issues of taxes, the economy, the high cost of living, and power usage are still pressing matters, this time, California is still knee-deep in a global pandemic. This election will decide how California approaches the growing threat of the Delta variant as we enter flu season.

Every Californian will be impacted by the outcome of this election; our health and safety are at stake. Every vote matters.


Important Dates to Know:

August 16th: Counties mailed out ballots to all registered voters by this date. All registered voters in California automatically receive a vote-by-mail (absentee) ballot in the mail. If you haven’t received your ballot or you would like to track it after submitting it, sign up for the free service BallotTrax. (If you have any issues receiving your ballot, contact your county elections office.)

August 30th: DEADLINE TO REGISTER TO VOTE to receive a ballot in the mail. If registering after this date, you will have to vote in person.

September 4 to 14th: Polling places are open for in-person voting everyday for ten consecutive days leading up to the election. Check here more detailed information on polling locations and their hours of operation for your county, as well as drop off locations for vote-by-mail ballots.

September 14th: ELECTION DAY! This is the LAST DAY to vote in person OR by mail. Polling places will be open from 7 AM to 8 PM on Election Day. Ballots must be postmarked by this date and must be received by your county by September 21, 2021 to be counted.


To learn more about the 2021 Recall Election:

AP News | EXPLAINER: How California could recall Gov. Gavin Newsom by Michael R. Blood

LA County Registrar | A Guide to Recall (PDF)

Ballotpedia | Gavin Newsom recall, Governor of California (2019-2021)

Business Insider | CA recall election: What to know about the election that could oust sitting Gov. Gavin Newsom by Lauren Frias

California Secretary of State | California Gubernatorial Recall Election - Frequently Asked Questions

NBC News | Covid got California Gov. Newsom into this recall mess. He's banking it'll get him out. by Alex Seitz-Wald


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