California Republicans accused Democrats of acting unfairly Monday as state lawmakers passed a bill aimed at moving up Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom's recall date.
“The conclusion is inescapable that Gavin Newsom is cheating in the recall and this Legislature is his willing accomplice," said Republican Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, who is considering running in the contest.
The proposal, now headed to Newsom's desk, would allow the recall to proceed at least 30 days earlier than under existing state law. Democrats hope to take advantage of what they view as favorable conditions for Newsom as the state moves on from the worst days of the pandemic and related restrictions.
Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting acknowledged the bill will “ensure that this recall election happens as soon as possible" and said that's something the recall's supporters should want.
Recall organizers collected 1.7 million signatures in support of recalling Newsom, and he'll face an election later this year. Without the recall, he'd next face voters in 2022 for a regularly scheduled reelection.
This marks the second time Democrats are changing the rules in hopes of helping their own. Four years ago, they added new steps to the recall process as a state senator faced a removal vote. At the time, they hoped to slow things down so the vote would align with the next primary. The changes gave voters who signed the recall petition 30 business days to remove their signatures and set a process for state finance officials and lawmakers to estimate and review election costs.
Democrats’ proposal would essentially bypass the legislative review process so long as lawmakers set aside money for counties to pay for the cost of the election. The state Department of Finance already sought a cost estimate from counties and lawmakers plan to approve $215 million to cover the local expense.
The bill also gives $35 million to the secretary of state, and Republican lawmakers questioned how it would be spent. They pointed to a controversial $35 million contract the office signed last year for voter outreach with a firm linked to President Joe Biden's campaign. The legislation approved Monday says the money would be spent “to support statewide and county costs of the 2021 gubernatorial recall election," but provides no details on whether it could be used to hire an outside firm.
“Here we go again. You know this just reeks of partisanship and we need to stop that," Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen said.
With no legislative review, Democratic Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a Newsom supporter, will be able to set an election date sooner. County clerks have said they need until at least Sept. 14 to be ready.
Those who want to speed things up believe the longer the wait until voters cast their ballots, the more risk of problems arising for Newsom Recent polls show Newsom in a strong position to keep his seat.
Republicans said Newsom's party is trying to manipulate the election.
“It is an attempt to put a thumb on the scale, to try to obtain a partisan outcome for one side," said GOP Assemblyman Vince Fong.
It's common for lawmakers in states that allow recalls to fiddle with election laws, but it usually happens after the contest is done, not before or during it, said Joshua Spivak, a recall elections expert. And efforts to manipulate election timing don't always work, he noted, pointing to California state Sen. Josh Newman, who lost his 2018 recall election despite Democrats' rule changes.
“That really suggested maybe we don’t know what we’re doing. You’re playing with fire by doing that,” said Spivak, who is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College and runs the Recall Elections Blog.
He speculated the change could backfire because an earlier election gives Democrats less time to motivate their voters. Republicans were behind the recall effort and gathered more than 1.7 million signatures. They say their voters are energized.
The bill makes other changes sought by county clerks specific to mail ballots and vote centers. All counties will be required to mail voters a ballot.
Nathan Click, a spokesman for Newsom’s campaign, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment about whether the campaign had communicated with Democratic lawmakers about the recall timing.