Gavin Newsom faces his greatest political test in the recall election

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California and the rest of the nation are waiting for the secretary of state to announce whether petitioners have collected enough valid signatures of voters to get a recall election against Governor Gavin Newsom. Since they have handed in more than two million unverified signatures, there is an expectation that the petitioners will succeed in meeting the first step. Prominent Republicans, including Caitlyn Jenner, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, former Congressman Doug Ose, and former gubernatorial candidate John Cox, have announced intentions to run.

Yet Newsom now has the ability to go on the offensive. This may surprise anyone who remembers the path of the Gray Davis recall election in 2003. But thanks to a recent law, Newsom supporters have 30 business days to collect signatures from petitioners asking to have their signature removed from the recall effort. Former state senate leader Don Perata has already indicated that he is launching such a campaign. This signature removal or signature strike law gives Democrats a chance to head off a recall election or at least make a strong statement in favor of Newsom.

The law, which was controversial because it passed as a “trailer” bill in 2017, was part of failed attempts to delay a 2018 state senate recall. The law also added over a month to allow state officials to figure out the cost of a recall effort. These two provisions may have the effect of lowering the political passions and, in the case of Newsom, allow for California to open more and push the coronavirus further in the rear view.

While the idea of legal signature removal may have had other motivations, it was not a new one. It actually goes back to the earliest days of the recall in California and is a law available in other states. After the recall came up in California, starting in Los Angeles and then the rest of the state in 1911, there were attempts to use a signature strike law to stop a recall. None of them mattered until 1915, when a court ruled against signature removal. Any feelings of remorse had to wait until the ballot box.

But this rejection of a strike law was not a universal rule. Among those that allow a recall of some or all state officials, Nevada, Georgia, Colorado, and Louisiana each have a signature removal law. The Nevada law became the focus of a lawsuit involving three state senate recalls from 2017 to 2019. In that case, Republicans were once again seeking to use a recall to reverse control by Democrats of an arm of the state government.

They launched recalls against two Democrats and a former Republican senator, which were enough to flip the chamber. After petitions were in, Democrats collected 2,000 removal signatures, which would have been more than enough to stop the recall. A district court judge allowed the signature removal plan to proceed. Republicans appealed but the high court did not rule on the validity of the strike law. It threw out the recalls over other problems and simply left the strike law alone.

The case in California was different. The state decided to enact the strike law in the run up to a recall effort against state senator Josh Newman. His recall was launched over his vote for a gas tax and to deprive Democrats of a supermajority in the legislature. Newman succeeded in gathering less than 900 removal signatures, far from what was needed to stop the recall effort. He lost the election but recaptured the seat in 2020. But the strike law is still relevant. In 2017, Newport Beach council member Scott Peotter headed off his recall after gathering more than 200 removal signatures, which had been barely sufficient to throw out the recall.

A signature removal effort may have some value beyond just trying to get the recall tossed out. It will be a solid excuse for Newsom to road test his campaign and kick out any dust from his team. But gathering signatures to get a recall tossed out is likely a very difficult undertaking. However, as Newport Beach showed, people do change their minds. If we have seen nothing else, it is that anything seems possible in a recall.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow who is focused on politics and history with the Hugh Carey Institute for Government Reform based at Wagner College.

Tags California Democrats Election Gavin Newsom Governor Policy Recall Voting

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