How does a recall work anyway?

Recall Newsom volunteers help Richard McDougal, left, and his wife, Florence Lauzob, sign the forms during a petition signing event at SaveMart in Sacramento on Jan. 5, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters
Recall Newsom volunteers help Richard McDougal, left, and his wife, Florence Lauzob, sign the forms during a petition signing event at SaveMart in Sacramento on Jan. 5, 2021. Photo by Anne Wernikoff, CalMatters

California is one of 19 states that allow voters to remove state officials before the end of their term. No reason is necessary — the only requirement to put a recall on the ballot is enough voter signatures. That number must be 12% of voters in the last election for the office, and must include voters in at least five counties. The magic number for Newsom’s would-be recallers: 1,495,709 valid signatures.  

The secretary of state certified on July 1 that recall supporters submitted 1,719,900 valid signatures — enough to trigger a recall election. That means:

  • An election will be held on Sept. 14. Voters will receive ballots in the mail beginning on Aug. 16. You can send your ballot back by mail, or vote in person.
  • Voters will be asked two questions: Do they want to recall Newsom, yes or no? And, if more than 50% of voters say “yes,” who should replace him? 

This is where things get strange. There’s no limit on the number of candidates who can run to replace an official on a recall ballot. And whoever gets the most votes wins — even without a majority. So it’s entirely possible that someone could be elected in a recall while winning less than half the votes. That’s what happened in 2003, when then-Gov. Gray Davis was recalled by 55% of voters. More than 100 people ran to replace him, carving up the votes and allowing action movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger to win with 48.6% support.