Both sides of California’s recall election want voters of color. Getting their votes is a different task

FRESNO — In a parking lot outside the Fresno County Democratic Party headquarters, extreme heat and nerves permeating the air, California Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula made a plea to the sparse crowd before him.

“We get the government we deserve,” Arambula, who represents communities in the San Joaquin Valley, said into a microphone. “If we’re not out there actually voting and making a difference and raising our voice, we’re stuck with the results of the election.” . 

On this Saturday, a lineup of local elected officials had come together in support of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who on Sept. 14 faces a Republican-led recall election triggered earlier this summer by voters angry about his handling of the pandemic, including shutdowns, and immigrant-friendly laws. 

This is only the fourth time in U.S. history, and the second in California, that a recall attempt has reached the ballot. The last time was in 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, won a recall election to replace then-Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat. This time around, there is cautious optimism by Democrats in the lead up to the special election that Newsom may defeat the recall, in which 46 candidates are vying to replace him. 

According to recall election rules, 51 percent of the vote is needed  for either side to win. If a majority of voters vote “yes” on the recall, Newsom will immediately be removed from office and the candidate with the highest percentage becomes governor. If a majority votes “no,” the governor will remain in office. 

But Newsom’s fate, as he weathers multiple crises on COVID-19 and natural disasters, depends on voter turnout, as well as outreach to a new electorate that didn’t exist when this issue last hit the ballot 18 years ago. 

More than 80 percent of the state’s 22 million registered voters cast ballots in the 2020 election, California’s Secretary of State Shirley Weber said. The 2003 recall saw a 70-percent turnout. Street signs and TV ads have flooded voters in recent weeks about the election, which will cost voters nearly $300 million.  

Weber said she expects the election to garner a high turnout because of the simple nature of the ballot — Should Newsom be recalled? If so, who should replace him? — and because the state has mailed a ballot to every registered California voter. 

“We took away people’s excuses,” Weber said. “They couldn’t say, ‘Well, I had to work that day.”

This year, an additional 50,000 paroled individuals are expected to vote after a law was approved by voters to allow people on parole to cast a ballot. Some of those people will be voting for the first time.

Faced with California’s diverse population, both sides of the recall have tried to convince voters of color to their sides. For groups of all leanings across the San Joaquin Valley, engaging voters early on has been key to maintaining the record turnouts in voting that has been seen in recent elections. But officials representing the groups say historic underrepresentation of people of color in the voting process is a challenge they’re hoping to address in this election — both getting them out and making sure their voices are heard. 

A numbers game

Staging a recall of an elected official is a costly, timely process, but the efforts against Newsom have long been in the works, according to Mike Netter, one of the key founders of the “Recall Gavin 2020” movement. Netter, a Republican businessman who lives in Los Angeles, told the NewsHour in a phone interview that the latest push for the recall began nearly two years ago, in part because he heard many people didn’t like the governor’s attitude and felt Newsom, in his view, isn’t transparent or accountable. 

In the past year, volunteers visibly stood in supermarket parking lots and street sidewalks or public events to collect signatures from people in every county who would agree with the recall; the state also granted an extension. Just more than 2 million people signed on. Los Angeles County had the most verified signatures in the state, but several counties in the San Joaquin Valley exceeded the required number of signatures. At least 200,000 signatures were collected among Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Kern and Madera counties. 

The recall isn’t sponsored by the Republican Party, Netter said — voters from all parties have supported recalling the governor. But the leading candidates are Republican. Supporters of the recall are hoping to change leadership from the top.

“Most people have kind of had it with both parties, and one-party rule just doesn’t work out too well, and it’s not working out in California. You’ve got homelessness, crimes, fire, power, water. The basic things that the government is supposed to do is not being done by the government,” Netter said. 

In-person voting began about a week ago in most places around the state, and election experts tracking voting suggest the early in-person voting period is often an indicator for candidates about how well they may do according to party turnout.

So far, Democrats have outpaced Republicans and Independents in ballots returned. As of Monday, 37 percent of eligible voters had returned a ballot. In the state, the party affiliation breakdown sits at 46 percent Democrat, 24 percent Republican and 24 percent “No Party Preference” or independents. 


Rallygoers listen as a Fresno City Councilmember speaks during a rally against the California recall of Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado/PBS NewsHour

The Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies surveyed registered voters in the summer, and found the majority would vote to keep the governor. But among those most likely to vote, a much tighter race is possible: 47 percent of likely voters favor the recall while 50 percent do not, according to the Berkeley poll. 

The university’s researchers note there are several factors that could determine voter turnout in the election: Republicans in the state are much more enthusiastic about the recall than Democrats; Democrats may also be complacent, given the state’s larger registered Democrat population. And voters who are typically drawn to elections by local races may not be interested in the statewide election, according to the polling. 

Gov. Newsom in recent days has shown up at events promoting a “no” vote on the recall in support of him, including a stop late last week in Fresno. He has also in past weeks made appearances in different parts of the state as he still battles the multiple disasters and emergencies related to wildfires, pandemic and drought. Conservative radio host Larry Elder, the leading Republican to replace Newsom, has also been stumping around the state, including two stops last week in Fresno County — first to speak to voters at a Clovis gas station, and later to speak with officials about agriculture.

In ads and interviews, Elder has accused Newsom of being a “tyrant” and “arrogant.” TV ads in favor of keeping Newsom in office paint the recall as an urgent matter, suggesting that the effort is a “Republican power grab” that would undo much of the progress in the deep blue state, including encouraging vaccinations to vaccinate against COVID-19 and recovering from economic effects of the pandemic.

But another poll released by the Public Policy Institute of California was more optimistic for Democrats, showing  58 percent of likely voters would vote to keep Newsom — compared to 38 percent who would vote to remove him. 

Who is each side trying to reach?

As the race comes to a close with voting on Tuesday, it still isn’t clear how voters of color will vote. The challenge, as in every election, is figuring out just what — or who — will motivate them to come out. 

Among Latinos, for example, 28 percent of the overall population is eligible to vote, but only 22 percent actually do. Statewide, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders won the 2020 presidential primary in large part thanks to support from Latino voters. Most recently Sanders and even former President Barack Obama appeared in separate digital ads calling on residents to vote against the recall. Vice President Kamala Harris and Sen. Elizabeth Warren also campaigned in person on behalf of Newsom. 

Venise Curry, coordinator of the Fresno County Civic Engagement Table, said getting votes from people of color in the San Joaquin Valley means understanding the issues they face — views from voters can look different even when faced with similar issues, she said. 

“People are looking at their own lives, their own neighborhoods and their own communities and they’re looking for progress. It may be housing, it may be making sure their children are safe to go to school, it may be that their bills are excessively high around trying to keep cool in a hot summer. But their issues are primary around progress,” Curry said. 

The Community and Labor Center at University of California in Merced released findings from a recent survey by the Fresno County Civic Engagement Table which asked 1,500 voters within the City of Fresno council districts what their priority issues were and if they planned to vote in the election. The survey found a slight gap: 91 percent of those who supported the recall planned to vote, while 72 percent of those against the recall planned to do so. 

For Netter, one of the architects behind the recall, growing support for the recall has meant reaching people who have been absent from other elections. He said people who haven’t voted in elections before or who don’t belong to a party have signed on to the effort because they were convinced it was an opportunity to address issues they care about. 

Netter said his focus, and likely advantage, has been reaching people who haven’t made up their mind and asking if they are satisfied with the state of politics and their personal lives. 

“I just had to remind my neighbor, ‘How’s life working out for you?’ He said, ‘Not too well,’” Netter said.

Netter added that the recall movement is seeking to energize people affected by poverty, homelessness and crime. “Those people really don’t give a damn who is in office. They just know that their life sucks, their houses are burning down, they can’t afford their power bill and now we have a water crisis.” 

Though he expects to be easily outspent by opponents of the recall, Netter said the recall group has relied on gathering support through social media and radio advertisements as well as grassroots organizing. 

Governor Gavin Newsom's appearance in San Leandro, California

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaks during an appearance ahead of facing a Republican-led recall election in September, in San Leandro, California, U.S., September 8, 2021. REUTERS/Fred Greaves

He said if not a victory, his effort will at least mobilize a base of people who “are fed up” and have largely lost faith in election systems to help push for reforms and laws in future elections. Netter, though, is confident that voters will oust Newsom on Tuesday.

“We’ve accomplished a lot, we have a huge base of people up and down California and that good base encouraged people to vote. The mail-in ballots may work to our advantage,” Netter said. “Signing the recall has empowered people to do something about their state.”

Surveying voters ahead of elections isn’t always about politics, Curry said. She said the work her organization tries to do is routinely engage voters so their issues are not forgotten. City of Fresno voters overwhelmingly responded to her organization’s recent survey that COVID-19 continued to be a concern for them, but climate change and air quality issues were also top priorities. 

The survey showed Latino, Black and Asian voters in Fresno were more likely to oppose the recall than other groups. 

Curry said public health being an issue in Fresno is not a surprise to her, since residents experience effects of air pollution year-round in the state’s fifth-largest city. But she said as politicians try to win over minority voters, it’s important for their policies to align with the solutions voters want to see. She said capturing interest from the unengaged voters is important to address larger issues they face. 

“These communities of color are often in communities where the impact of poor air quality and climate change are often felt the hardest,” she said. “If you’re in a community where your asthma rates are excessively high and you’re familiar with that process, then anything that challenges your ability to breathe is going to be a priority.” 

Increasing voter access during ‘off season’

For those looking to defeat the recall, there is no time to lose nor votes to waste. Months ago, it appeared the governor nor the party were taking the recall that seriously, according to Michael Evans, chair of the Fresno County Democratic Party. 

But he said the work has picked up in recent weeks, including overseeing groups going out into rural Fresno County cities to canvas Democrats. On the recent Saturday rally, phone bankers inside Democratic headquarters got the word out while canvassers descended to nearby neighborhoods. 

In the weeks leading up to the election, Evans said he began feeling better about the campaign against the recall. 

“There was a lot of questioning early on, folks didn’t think a lot was happening on the ‘no on recall’ side,” Evans said. “That certainly picked up within the last month or so.” 

The recall election is the largest election statewide for voters since the 2020 general election, which saw record turnout among young people. Nationally, young people turned out to vote in larger numbers than usual, and California in particular saw a 17-point increase in voting among 18-29-year-olds in 2020, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. 

Jennifer Xiong, communications associate for Hmong Innovating Politics, a group that works to improve voter turnout among Southeast Asians in Fresno and Sacramento, said high school- and college-age young people are helping fuel voter outreach in Fresno County through canvassing and phone banking. The organization is nonpartisan, so Xiong said the focus is to teach residents about how and where to vote rather than who to vote for. 

She said voter outreach is just as critical in the “off season” since, as it is, many residents in her community — which has a history of not being reached with timely voter information — were confused over why a recall was happening in the first place. 

“Sometimes the efforts, when it’s not being grassroots-oriented, it still falls a bit short on communities whose dominant language is not English,” Xiong said. 

Xiong said last November’s election saw the highest turnout among Hmong voters in the Central Valley. She said that means efforts to mobilize voters even during a pandemic are working. Her volunteer canvassers at one point exceeded 10,000 phone calls to registered voters reminding them about the upcoming election, she said. 

For the recall election, “We’re all strongly urging and advising [that] it’s better to get [the ballot] in before the day of, and don’t try to gamble with 8 p.m. because things come up,” Xiong said.  

A high-stakes vote 

Those who support the recall criticize Newsom for his “arrogant” behavior, such as flouting COVID-19 rules while at a dinner last November, and for shutdown measures taken as governor to control the pandemic. But others say the governor’s actions early on — including instituting shelter-in-place orders for millions of residents and later pushing vaccinations — have prevented the pandemic from getting worse. 

Camila Chavez, executive director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, said there are other reasons to keep Newsom office. She said the governor’s aid to undocumented families who were left out of federal assistance as well as expanded health benefits for Medi-Cal are positive things the legislature has done to improve residents’ lives. She said she’s personally fearful that the leading Republican candidates will reverse minimum wage, climate or COVID-19 policies.

“We’re fearful about what’s going to happen, and we have very little time to get the word out and educate all those that can vote,” she said. 

The 25-000 member organization, which works in Kern, Tulare and Fresno counties in the San Joaquin Valley, provides civic information to the eligible voter members throughout the year. The recall was no different, although Chavez sensed in recent weeks that enthusiasm was lacking among voters her phone bankers were contacting.

“Amongst our base, yes of course, but outside of that it’s really hard to see [enthusiasm], and especially here in Kern County. It’s a mixed bag,” Chavez said. 

Chavez remembers the 2003 recall well. She was at a West Bakersfield rally for then-candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger and she was verbally assaulted by rally goers for holding up a sign against Schwarzenegger. She and her sisters were faced down by “hundreds” of Schwarzenegger supporters, she said. The next day, Chavez ended up on the front page of the city newspaper being yelled at, and a woman tearing her sign. 

Chavez also said issues at polling sites are concerning to her since her organization tries to get minority and newly registered voters to engage in the process. She said last year in Kern County, voters reported having their ballot recommendations from the foundation taken away at the time of voting, and there were some who were turned away from voting because they did not have an ID.

In California, presenting an ID at the time of voting is not a requirement, so Chavez said having eligible voters turned away without informing them about their rights and options raises questions about fair elections at the local level, and in conservative counties. 

“Any effort to suppress the vote is very dangerous and should concern each and every one of us,” Chavez said. 

What will this mean for recalls?

Officials say there are larger issues to address with the recall process itself. 

Weber told the NewsHour that the recall has presented a “high-stakes election” and will test the attitude of people and their feelings about the governor and those seeking to replace him. But she said should the recall be approved by voters, it’s highly unlikely that any of the candidates seeking to replace the governor will earn the majority of votes, since there are so many candidates. 

That’s one of the shortfalls, she says, in the current recall language, which is more than 100 years old. She also thinks the threshold for signatures is also too low for the current population. The recall process has been scrutinized since it got underway, but ultimately ruled constitutional by a federal judge.

“The world has changed since then,” Weber said. “I’ve talked to different people who have said, ‘How could this happen, that maybe we end up with a governor who the majority of people didn’t want?’” 

The recall initiative does not have a runoff policy attached to it, meaning the  outcome will be final once the secretary’s office certifies the results within 30 days. Weber said she is considering putting together a committee after the election to study the California recall initiative and consider changes. 

She said she has seen a “proliferation” throughout the state of recall attempts against smaller offices like District Attorneys, school boards and council members. “We need to make sure it’s a tool that is used fairly and effectively,” Weber said.