WASHINGTON — Californians are heading to the polls Tuesday to decide whether or not to remove Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom from office, or at least voters who haven’t already cast a ballot by mail.
California's unusual recall election, triggered when anti-Newsom organizers collected the roughly 1.5 million signatures needed to put him on the ballot again, will ask voters to decide if Newsom should be fired and, if so, to pick a replacement governor from a list of 46 alternatives, with firebrand conservative radio host Larry Elder leading in polls.
California — the nation’s most-populous state and the world’s fifth-largest economy — is facing a slew of challenges, from rising costs of living to wildfires and drought. And Newsom alienated some voters during the Covid-19 pandemic when he shut down businesses and instituted mask mandates but was photographed dining maskless at one of the nation's fanciest restaurants located in his state's wine region.
Over the summer, polls showed a neck-and-neck contest among likely voters, but Newsom appears to have regained strength in recent weeks as complacent Democrats, who outnumber Republicans roughly 2-to-1 in the state, began to engage in the race and make plans to vote.
Most votes are expected to be cast by mail, since the state decided to send a ballot to every registered voter. Ballots that are postmarked by Tuesday are eligible.
In-person voting is available and expected to be used largely by conservatives, many of whom don’t trust mail ballots after former President Donald Trump demonized them during the 2020 presidential election.
Results could take several days to process, especially if the race is close, and California tends to be slow in counting votes.
Some results will be available as soon as polls close, however, since officials are allowed to begin processing mail ballots received before Election Day. Analysts caution that those results are likely to skew more Democratic than the final vote because many Republicans are expected to wait to vote in person.
Newsom held a last-minute campaign event on Tuesday to greet volunteers in San Francisco.
"Polls don't vote, people vote," said Newsom. "And that is particularly true in an off-year, off-month election and a recall election."
Newsom and his allies have portrayed the recall as a right-wing power grab, arguing someone like Elder could never win California in a normal election. But in a recall, a narrow majority could vote to remove Newsom from office, then a small plurality could install Elder as the replacement, as long as he receives more votes than the 45 other candidates.
Elder and other Newsom critics, meanwhile, say the governor has failed to address major problems plaguing the state, such as homelessness, not to mention more familiar national issues like fights over mask and vaccine mandates.
Recall elections are rare, and only a handful of states allow them. But the last time California had a recall, it succeeded in removing former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, leading to him being replaced by Republican actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
If Newsom successfully defeats the recall, which is costing taxpayers an estimated $215 million to conduct, he won't get much rest from the campaign trail since he'll face voters again next year in his re-election campaign.