It's Election Day in California, where voters will be deciding whether they want Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom to finish out his first term, which ends in 2022, or be replaced by one of the 46 replacement candidates.
The latest polls are favorable to Newsom, with 53 percent of voters opting to keep Newsom and 45 percent opting to remove him. If those numbers hold, this is going to be far from a replay of Gov. Gray Davis' recall in 2003.
Back in July and August it looked pretty dicey for Newsom as undecided voters had started to break toward tossing him. But the latest poll by the national survey company Trafalgar Group has the undecided voters flipping back in his favor, and only 2 percent of those polled remained undecided.
Republican talk show host Larry Elder remains the front-runner as a possible replacement. But Republicans are already blaming voter fraud for a potential loss in a state where mass numbers of citizens in the cities habitually vote blue over and over again. It's the two-button meme in action: Conservatives regularly decry the state's citizens favoring progressive candidates and policies that wreck the economy, harm businesses, prevent housing construction, and drive people out of the state. And they're right! But to also claim that the vote to keep Newsom is fraudulent? Those two ideas don't combine well. Newsom is not that special or different a politician from the rest of the Democratic establishment in a profoundly blue state.
The voter-fraud excuse, instead of an acceptance of defeat, also makes it harder for candidates like Elder to insist on being seen as independent from former President Donald Trump if Elder's just going to pursue the same sore-loser tactics.
What might have caused a bit of a secondary shift in undecided voters was the actual statements put out by recall proponents that were then sent out to citizens. The signature-gathering effort began well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, before Newsom used his emergency powers to oppressively lock down the state and then swanned off to The French Laundry for a fancy dinner. It's a hobby for some folks to try to recall elected officials. Pretty much every year petitions circulate that fail to gather enough signatures. This petition didn't start off any differently from the others.
But Newsom's overly zealous authority-mongering in response to COVID-19 made people unhappy enough to push signature gatherers over the edge. This is what proponents circulated to justify the recall:
"Governor Newsom has implemented laws which are detrimental to the citizens of this state and our way of life. Laws he endorsed favor foreign nationals, in our country illegally, over that of our own citizens. People in this state suffer the highest taxes in the nation, the highest homelessness rates, and the lowest quality of life as a result. He has imposed sanctuary state status and fails to enforce immigration laws. He unilaterally over-ruled the will of the people regarding the death penalty. He seeks to impose additional burdens on our state by the following; removing the protections of Proposition 13, rationing our water use, increasing taxes and restricting parental rights. Having no other recourse, we the people have come together to take this action, remedy these misdeeds and prevent further injustices."
Unlike Newsom's authoritarian COVID-19 response, much of the above is a result of normal representative lawmaking. Legislators, not the governor, implemented sanctuary state laws, for example (though Newsom supports them). Recall proponents are lodging objections to Democratic establishment positions shared not just by Newsom, but by many people in the state. This doesn't make all the policies good, mind you, but removing the governor isn't going to fix them, particularly if a majority of Californians support them.
Newsom has essentially campaigned on all of these issues, and defenders are fighting the recall by calling it a Republican takeover attempt. But beyond that, they're attacking the idea of the recall itself as undemocratic. They've gone so far as to tell Newsom supporters to vote no on the recall, all while omitting that they still have the right to vote for a replacement if he loses. If voters follow the advice of CNN and MSNBC commentator, lawyer, and former New York State Assistant Attorney General Tristan Snell they'll actually lose their opportunity to decide who would replace Newsom if he loses.
This tactic could fuel a potential legal challenge based on the claim that Newsom's successor is likely to get fewer votes than Newsom. This is not some sort of anti-democratic civil rights atrocity, it's basic math. If Newsom gets booted from office, it's because the majority of voters no longer wanted him as governor. Because there are 46 potential replacements, the votes for his successor are likely to be spread around. If they wanted to make sure the winning candidate gets a majority of the vote, the state could implement ranked choice voting.
But that's not the point. It's a cynical attack on the process meant to serve as a cover for one political party's power structure. These are the "anti-democratic" actions and it's what pushed me over the edge to voting in favor of the recall. Voters sent California's leadership a message by rejecting many of their favored policies in ballot initiatives last year. Voters rejected efforts to undermine Proposition 13 and exempted independent rideshare drivers from harsh employment laws.
The establishment seems likely to win this evening and, as Reason's Matt Welch writes, the likely result will be an attempt to make it harder to bring a recall petition to vote. The Democratic Party in California lost me long ago; I actually partly credit their economic ignorance, complete capture by public sector unions, and oppressive regulatory practices for helping me realize I'm a libertarian.