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What do Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kamala Harris and Gavin Newsom have in common? California voters have tried throwing all of them out of office.

In fact, since 1913, the state’s voters have tried to recall elected officials 171 times. Ten recalls made it to the ballot. Six officials have been replaced.

So what does it take to recall a governor?

It isn’t easy. But the coronavirus has changed California’s political landscape — even though the recall petition predates the pandemic and doesn’t actually say a word about it.

Instead the recall effort began as a right-wing attempt to oust a blue state governor for being too progressive. But it gained steam as Newsom tried to contain the coronavirus with restrictions that forced lots of businesses, schools and churches to close. And he didn’t help himself by attending a lobbyist’s party, unmasked, at the swanky French Laundry — where dinner costs more than $350 per person.

All it takes to put a recall on the California ballot is signatures from 12% of the number of people who voted in the last election for governor. Normally, recall supporters don’t have enough time or money to do it. But because of the pandemic stay-at-home order last year, a judge gave them extra time, until March 17.

Successfully recalling a California governor has only happened once, when Gray Davis  was replaced by Schwarzenegger — at the time an action movie hero who welcomed being called The Governator. That was 2003.

At the time, 55% of voters elected to recall Davis, and more than a hundred people ran to replace him. Schwarzenegger won because he had the most votes — even though it was less than a majority.

So who wants to take Newsom’s spot now?

For starters, Republicans John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018, and Kevin Faulconer, the former mayor of San Diego.

If the recall qualifies for the ballot, voters would face two questions: One, do you want to recall Newsom? Two, who should replace him? If more than 50% of voters say “yes” to the recall question, then whoever gets the most votes becomes governor.

At least until we have another election in 2022. 

To dive deeper into how recalls work — and to learn more about the campaign to oust Newsom — check out this CalMatters card deck explainer.

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Byrhonda Lyons is a national award-winning investigative reporter for CalMatters. She writes and produces compelling stories about California’s court and criminal system. Her reporting has uncovered...

Laurel covers California politics for CalMatters, with a focus on power and personalities in the state Capitol. She's been included in the Washington Post’s list of outstanding state politics reporters...