Clarity on the Process of Recalling a Governor

There’s a lot of talk about Governor Gavin Newsom’s potential recall, but not as much clarity. Some readers certainly remember the recall of Democratic Governor Gray Davis in 2003. Still, it is an excellent time for all California citizens to refresh their minds on the recall process.

Recall elections happen in three phases: petition, fiduciary and scheduling. Let’s look at each one.


The petition phase starts with a 200-word statement from the entity wishing to recall a politician. The politician is then given 30 days to respond with a statement of no more than 200 words. Both statements must appear on the initial petition. This is a “testing period” to make sure there is enough viable interest to proceed.

If there is enough interest, it triggers a 160-day period, set by the Secretary of the State of California, to gather enough signatures to initiate a full recall election, based on a percentage of the votes received in the most recent election. In the case of Gavin Newsom, just under 1.5 million valid signatures were needed to recall. By the cut-off date of March 17, the effort to recall Governor Newsom had attained 2,117,730 total signatures. Petitioners always strive to collect more signatures than needed to compensate for signatures that may be disqualified for a variety of reasons, such as the following: 

— Not a registered voter

— Not a resident of California 

— Not a resident of stated City/County

— Erroneous information on the recall petition sheet

There are other reasons as well. The validation of signatures is done by county registrars, which is where we are now in the recall process. This process must be completed by April 29 for all 58 of California’s counties. Smaller counties may choose to verify every signature. There are accepted formulae, usually used by high-population counties, where if a large percentage of the signatures are coming in as valid, they can verify the whole county without checking every signature.

Once the counties are finished, everything is then passed back to the Secretary of State for final verification for each of the 58 counties. Newsom has acknowledged that the issue of his removal would likely come to a vote, saying, “The reality is, it looks like it will get on the ballot, so we’re ready to go.”

Interestingly, if there are enough valid signatures to trigger an election, there is a countermeasure — a defense mechanism, if you will — for Newsom’s team to go out and try to get signatory residents to rescind their signatures. During the Gray Davis recall, clever wording was used to get people to remove their signatures when they believed they were confirming the recall. This may happen again, as Newsom is reportedly already gathering a team to attempt to convince people to pull their signatures. The typical technique is to target low-frequency voters and extoll the virtues of the governor. If they get enough people to rescind their signatures, the recall ends. There is no extra window of time to replace those signatures.


The California Constitution gives the people a right to know how much a special election will cost. A full financial review is undertaken by the state and independent accountants and economists. The Davis recall in 2003 cost $25 million. This provides a potentially persuasive counterargument for the governor to convince people to rescind their signatures.


While the financial phase is running its course, the final stage begins, which is to schedule the recall election date. Procedural steps dictate that a recall election be held 60 to 80 days from signature verification, with some leeway. If a potential election date falls reasonably close to an existing election date, the time span can be stretched in the name of easing the work and expense. Fifteen California counties have off-cycle or “odd-year” elections for county and municipal seats to be held on November 2, 2021. It may be argued that a recall election should be pushed to November.

When the ballot arrives, there will be two questions regarding the gubernatorial seat:

  1. Do you wish to recall Governor Gavin Newsom?
  2. Regardless of how you voted on 1, if Governor Newsom is recalled, which of the following candidates would you choose as Governor?

Anyone can run for Governor. There are no prerequisites. Many of those interested will start the process once the election is scheduled. 

Gavin Newsom recently released a statement saying, “Let’s just call it what it is: it’s a partisan, Republican recall – backed by the RNC, anti-mask and anti-vax extremists, and pro-Trump forces that want to overturn the last election and have opposed much of what we have done to fight the pandemic.” 

Randy Economy, senior advisor for, responded by stating that as results trickle in, approximately a third of the signatures (trending 32 to 36 percent) are not Republicans. “He’s failed,” says Economy. “He’s failed miserably. He has locked down the fifth largest economy in the world, let out prisoners, put us under house arrest.”

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the winner of the 2003 recall election, said, “It’s pretty much the same atmosphere today as it was then. There was dissatisfaction to the highest level [in political leadership]. People are working very hard. People are making unbelievable sacrifices every day … and they feel like, ‘Wait a minute, but Sacramento doesn’t really do everything that they promised to do. We are working hard, but they are not. They’re failing us every day.’ That’s what I see as the similarities from 2003. It’s the same vibe.”

Time will tell what happens in this current recall process as we proceed through the phases as necessary.

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