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In California, the stakes are high, and the process is weird

If recent polling is correct, the incumbent governor is likely to keep his job, but the stakes are high, and the process is weird.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a rally against the California gubernatorial recall election on Sept. 12, 2021, in Sun Valley.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a rally against the California gubernatorial recall election on Sept. 12, 2021, in Sun Valley.Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP

President Joe Biden is scheduled to appear in California this evening, where he'll campaign alongside Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom ahead of tomorrow's recall election. If recent polling is correct, the incumbent governor is likely to keep his job, but the stakes are high, and the process is weird. Let's review the basics.

How in the world did this happen?

California's recall laws are badly in need of reform, but for now, a Golden State governor's opponents can force a statewide recall election by collecting enough petition signatures. The threshold isn't that high: It takes 12 percent of the turnout from the most recent gubernatorial race. If roughly half of California's electorate voted in the last election for governor, for example, that means 6 percent of the state's registered voters can force a recall election.

Ordinarily, recall supporters have 160 days to gather the required number of signatures, but in this case, a state judge gave Newsom's opponents extra time because of the pandemic. (The same judge later prevented the governor from including his party identification on the ballot.)

How many questions are on the ballot?

Just two: (1) Should Newsom be recalled? 2) If a majority votes to recall the governor, who should replace him?

What does the governor have to do to win?

If a majority of voters oppose the recall, Newsom will remain in office and the drama will end. If the incumbent governor falls short, even a little, Newsom will be recalled and the new governor will be the candidate who receives the most number of votes on the ballot's second question.

How many other candidates are running?

There are 46 replacement candidates on the ballot, including conservative media personality Larry Elder, who's widely seen as the top Republican contender.

With 46 replacement candidates, won't it be difficult for any one candidate to generate significant support?

It's one of the more obvious flaws in the state's system: Elder, for example, would become the next governor if he wins a relatively small plurality of the vote, even if 49.9 percent of Californians decided to keep Newsom in office.

Is there talk of overhauling this process?

Yes, but that will have to wait. The focus in the short term is on tomorrow's election, though there's ample talk of reforming the status quo.

Does Newsom have a major Democratic opponent?

No. In fact, this was a deliberate strategy on the part of the California state party. While there are some lesser-known Democrats running, the party rallied behind Newsom and created a system in which parties were effectively told, "If you recall the governor, you'll be left with a conservative Republican as California's new chief executive."

What happens if Newsom loses?

The stakes are quite high. Elder, for example, has already vowed to govern as a very conservative Republican on practically every issue, including the Covid-19 crisis. What's more, while incumbent Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has said she intends to remain in office, if she were to give up her U.S. Senate seat for any reason, Elder has vowed to replace her with a GOP senator, who in turn would flip control of the Senate to Republicans and put Mitch McConnell in charge of the chamber.

Watch this space.