California is facing an unusual yet highly consequential recall election

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California, now the nation’s largest Democratic bulwark, has experienced tremendous progress and growth ever since its beginnings as a new territory. Now, juxtaposed with the state’s march towards a more democratic society, Republicans are evoking an antiquated law as an attempt to claim statewide power. Section 14 of Article II of the California Constitution provides an unusually easy mechanism for initiating a recall election against the state’s governor (Ballotpedia, “Article II, California Constitution”).

Given the hyperpartisan atmosphere of today’s politics, the upcoming Sept. 14 recall election seemed likely even before it came to fruition. Critics of the governor, mostly Republicans, have successfully garnered enough signatures from Californians to establish a recall election, threatening Gavin Newsom’s (D-CA) incumbency. Organizers and proponents of the push to recall Newsom only needed to gather enough signatures to make up 12 percent of the total turnout from the previous gubernatorial election (CNN, “Critics of California governor gather enough signatures to force recall election,” 04.27.2021).

Governor Newsom won office in 2018 with 61.9 percent of the vote. President Joe Biden collected California’s 55 electoral votes with 63.5 percent of the state’s popular vote in the 2020 presidential election (The Washington Post, “California Election Results,” 04.06.2019); (The Washington Post, “California,” 12.12.2020). These recent results indicate California’s majority Democratic identity. Moreover, these were relatively high turnout elections, meaning that they were especially reflective of the citizenry’s desires. This is precisely why the push for a recall election is the perfect avenue for a Republican to assume statewide office.

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A recall election is the greatest chance that the G.O.P. has for their candidate to take control of the most populous state in America, despite its entrenched Democratic supermajority (Vox, “How California’s bizarre recall system could elect a Republican governor,” 08.23.2021). Because it is not a regular California election, it does not garner as much attention or proper build-up, and because it is a recall election, a greater proportion of people who specifically want to remove the Governor will be motivated to turn out. In essence, the recall effort is an anti-democratic, but legal, push by California Republicans to assume control.

After a hard-fought campaign of cynically exploiting the frustrations of many Californians surrounding topics such as mask mandates, critical race theory (CRT) and the “invasion” of undocumented immigrants, Republicans could actually come away with a victory despite general unpopularity due to California’s abnormal electoral system (Vox, “How California’s bizarre recall system could elect a Republican governor,” 08.23.2021); (Yahoo News, “How Gavin Newsom could lose the California recall to a Republican with half as many votes,” 08.26.2021). However, the question of legality of a California gubernatorial recall election fueled by signatures from just 12 percent of voters from the previous election has already been resolved through litigation, and the election is in less than two weeks. Alas, it is a legal process, and Governor Newsom is now fighting for his political future in the—as weird as it sounds—battleground state of California. The vital thing to keep in mind is that this election is more so about California and our planet rather than Newsom himself.

For national Republicans, removing Newsom is a dream scenario, and it is closer to fruition than ever. Newsom and ex-Governor of New York Andrew Cuomo, who finally resigned after an investigation affirmed accusations of sexual harassment, have long been portrayed as boogeymen by the Right, and it is easy to understand why (Ballotpedia News, “New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigns, Hochul sworn in as successor,” 08.28.2021). New York and California are major Democratic states where Republicans try to highlight and over exaggerate issues such as crime, radical education curricula and consistent COVID-19 restrictions and mandates. There is a conspicuous connection between Republicans’ portrayal of Newsom as the epitome of everything they see wrong with the so-called tyranny of the Democratic establishment and a national Republican rhetoric that paints California, as well as New York, as the negative and summative examples of the Democratic Party. It is analogous to how liberals may sometimes stereotype people in America’s Deep South.

The California governor has been the face of a few mini-scandals such as violating his own masking restriction during a private gathering (Kusi News, “Photos emerge of mask-less Gavin Newsom breaking his rules for private gatherings,” 11.18.2020). These personal foibles, however, are front-and-center in the push to oust Newsom by his critics. Newsom has apologized when necessary, but Republicans are relentless in their pursuit of making these trivial matters serve as justification for his removal. Larry Elder, a conservative radio host that is currently the leading candidate to replace Newsom by a significant plurality, has accused Newsom of arrogance and incompetence, going so far as to call him a tyrant and hypocrite (Elder for Governor, “Why Elder”). Newsom is not immune to making miscalculated personal or policy moves; however, a Republican victory poses a real threat to political stability, the continuation of California’s social progress, pandemic recovery efforts and the environment.

Larry Elder is somebody who deeply opposes the alleged intrusiveness of government in California, but to a degree that can make even some Republicans raise eyebrows. He equates mandating a simple piece of protective cloth across the face in certain settings to authoritarian control (Elder for Governor, “COVID, Vaccination, and Masks”). He supports the repeal of Proposition 47, which according to the California Courts website, “reclassified certain theft and drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors” (Elder for Governor, “COVID, Vaccination, and Masks”); (California Courts: The Judicial Branch of California, “Proposition 47: The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act). This would worsen mass incarceration and hurt many families, particularly the marginalized, poor and people of color. Also, since Newsom placed a statewide moratorium on capital punishment in 2018, there are still more than 700 people on death row, and Elder or another Republican’s signature could easily end their lives given the G.O.P.’s continued support of capital punishment as an alleged method of crime reduction (CalMatters, “Gavin Newsom report card: What he has done, and what he hasn’t,” 07.21.2021); (Death Penalty Information Center, “Political Party Platforms and the Death Penalty”).

Elder rejects the idea of a minimum wage, the existence of the gender pay gap, the idea of health care as a human right and he has called the climate crisis a “myth,” while providing no indication that he will listen to the science (Politico, “He opposes gun control, the minimum wage––and could be California’s next governor,” 08.17.2021). He mislabels Democratic governance with Newsom as tyrannical, and yet, he is willing to put his potential power as governor ahead of the science.

In such a populous state that has an enormous coastline, national parks, exceptional biological diversity, an ongoing threat of raging wildfires and vulnerable infrastructure, it is critical that leadership pay attention to the best available science (State of California Department of Justice, “Climate Change Impacts in California”). With Elder or another Republican candidate as governor of California, that would not be the case. In fact, Elder’s campaign website does not offer even a single word of acknowledgement for the effects climate change has on California now, the more drastic effects it could have in the future or any solution to the issue (Elder for Governor, “Wildfire and Drought”).

A chilling reality of the climate crisis is that although Californians have some control over their future, the wildlife at risk does not. Entire species of birds, mammals, plant life and marine life cannot vote, and they will have to bear the brunt of changing temperatures, growing wildfires and increasingly frequent natural disasters (State of California Department of Justice, “Climate Change Impacts in California”). Considering the Republican tendencies to continue relying on fossil fuels and cut regulations that protect the environment, it could get worse and have ripple effects on the rest of America and the world. At a time like this, a Republican governor, Larry Elder in particular, could weaken the social safety net of Californians and cause irrevocable damage to the environment.

Governor Newsom has a proven track record in moving California in the right direction. He is compassionate, aware of the challenges of his state and trusts professionals and the best available science. The moratorium on executions is still in effect, and statewide abolition of the death penalty is still a possibility with his tenure. He placed new limits on police use of force. He proposed California’s largest budget in history which includes investments in human infrastructure areas such as pre-K, broadband and housing. He doubled the state’s earned income tax credit to ensure that more low-wage workers and their families can support themselves. He helped to continue pandemic-era universal school lunch. He expanded Medi-Cal for undocumented residents up to the age of 26, and his continued governorship could mean that the public health insurance program will cover immigrants as old as 50 or older, a win for immigration advocates (CalMatters, “Gavin Newsom Report Card: What he has done, and what he hasn’t,” 07.21.2021).

Newsom signed off on legislation that put a basic ceiling on rent hikes, turned hotel vacancies during the pandemic into housing for the homeless, made some of that available assistance permanent and signed a historic $12 billion homelessness reduction package for this year (The Mercury News, “Gov. Newsom signs $12 billion bill to fight homelessness,” 07.19.2021). His aggressive push for acquiring personal protective equipment was the antithesis of the Trump Administration’s laissez-faire approach to battling the pandemic (Vox, “Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis is an indictment of his approach to the coronavirus,” 10.02.2020). Most importantly, Newsom offered a timeline for phasing out fracking and gas-powered cars, as well as other environmental changes including the push for 100 percent clean energy, plans that Larry Elder or any other realistic replacement for Newsom on the ballot would denigrate (Environment California, “Statement: Gov. Newsom announces he is accelerating California’s progress to climate goals,” 07.09.2021). The continuation of Newsom’s governorship and Democratic control, threatened by the upcoming recall election, presents further opportunities for progress and environmental protection in California.

The California ballot has two sides: the first one being “Shall GAVIN NEWSOM be recalled (removed) from the office of governor?” and the second one offering a space to indicate which candidate should replace Newsom if he is to be removed from office (California Secretary of State, “California Gubernatorial Recall Election––Frequently Asked Questions”). If a majority of votes are “NO” for the first question, Newsom will remain in office and the will of the people from the regular 2018 gubernatorial election will be preserved. Then the path towards a more perfect California and America can move forward. Californians at Vassar College, in the Poughkeepsie area and all who are reading this urgent plea for awareness, please vote in this, as the title indicates, unusual yet highly consequential election.

Election day is on September 14, 2021, but early voting has already begun. Vote-by-mail ballots must be postmarked on or before September 14 and received by September 21 to be considered valid. For more help with the recall election and other elections, follow the Vassar Votes initiative on Instagram and Facebook.

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