Politico

Republicans raise now-familiar alarms about 'steal' of California recall


OAKLAND, Calif. — Conservatives are taking a page from the playbook of former President Donald Trump by raising, without evidence, the specter that Democrats are trying to block a California recall election by manipulating the elections process.

Recall organizers have expressed confidence in California’s system and believe they have enough valid signatures to qualify a recall election of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. But Republican members of Congress are attacking California’s signature verification process, while conservatives with large social media followings are magnifying those arguments ahead of the March 17 deadline to submit 1.5 million valid signatures.

“I expect them to lie, cheat and steal,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said in an interview, adding that Democrats could “take all the friendly registrars of voters they can find… and just challenge every signature.”

California has plenty of experience with signature-driven ballot fights, given that the initiative process is a well-worn path for interest groups trying to circumvent the state Capitol. As those in the ballot measure industry know, every petition drive must aim to collect hundreds of thousands more signatures than required because there are always invalid submissions. Serious players build enough room in their budgets to overshoot the valid signature goal by 20 percent or more through paid gatherers and outreach.

Plenty of Republicans and business groups have qualified ballot questions in the past — including Issa himself as the primary contributor to the 2003 gubernatorial recall that led to former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election. But some Republicans are attempting to shake the electorate’s confidence in the elections system this time — just as Trump did in swing states and in California prior to the 2020 presidential election.

Some conservatives have already posted false claims on social media, like actor Kevin Sorbo, perhaps best known for his title role on the 1990s “Hercules” TV series. “So California is requiring signature verification for Gavin Newsom’s recall, but didn’t require it for the mail in ballots. How strange,” Sorbo tweeted last month in a claim that was false because registrars are required to check signatures on mail-in ballots — one reason election results can take so long to emerge in California.

The tweet — shared and liked more than 120,000 times — was amplified without correction by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who has backed the recall and donated more than $100,000 to the campaign.

In other cases, Republicans are using election integrity fears in a bid to collect more signatures. Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) last month sent supporters an email saying Democrats “plan to toss any signatures they can render as invalid (surprise surprise).”

“We need it to be beyond the margin of Democrat trickery,” LaMalfa said of recall efforts before urging supporters to sign the petition.

California’s 58 county registrars are responsible for checking signatures to make sure they match those on file for registered voters. Some registrars are appointed in California by county supervisors, while others are elected in nonpartisan races. They are required to submit verification results to the secretary of state — and so far, the recall effort has impressed California strategists with a higher-than-typical validation rate near 84 percent.

Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley oversaw some of the state’s closest elections the last two cycles in a former GOP stronghold-turned-battleground. He said that there’s simply no evidence to suggest that Democrats could put their thumbs on the scale to undo the recall.

In the wake of a 2020 election in which then-President Trump fueled doubts and lies about a stolen election — including repeat claims that millions voted illegally in California — officials like Kelley have a particular challenge as the recall goes forward.

“The reality is, I think the average voter has confidence” in the integrity of California elections and the system, he said. But given that those false narratives were “amplified in the last cycle,” he said, elections officials around the state “have to address those issues — and continue to educate the public.”

The local officials have a particularly big stake in what lies ahead: it will be those 58 registrars who make the calls on the validity of signatures in recall petitions — not, as some Republicans have suggested, Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who was recently appointed to the post after serving as a Democratic San Diego assemblymember.

“I can tell you that there’s not one of them that approaches this job with partisan lenses,” Kelley said. “We really do focus on mechanics.”

County registrars will oversee a nearly identical process to the voter verification required in a traditional election, he said — with the exception that there may be duplicate signatures on recall petitions that must be identified and discarded. While anyone is free to sign, he noted, only the signatures of “active and registered voters” will count toward qualifying it.

Recall expert Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York, said that accusations of a stolen election — which have continued to be echoed by Trump in his most recent public appearance — reflect the reality that “there’s always potential for danger” in politically charged elections.

But in California, one of just 20 states that allows for gubernatorial recall, there is “well-established law” that has worked to guard against a corrupted process, he said. And California’s decades-long tradition of signature-gathering in the popular initiative process has put many “politically dynamic” and controversial measures before voters — including the gas tax — with no credible evidence of tampering, said Spivak, who tracks recall developments on his blog.

The incendiary partisan talk has California Democrats bristling that Republicans are trying to pump up their base — and rally donors — with false charges of election fraud.

“Californians know how signature gathering works— we do it many times over every election year with our ballot propositions,’’ California Democratic strategist Amelia Matier said. “The recall proponents are not fooling anyone — and taking a page from Trump’s playbook just makes them look all the more pathetic.”

If the recall qualifies, she warned that Republicans might only hurt themselves by questioning the integrity of the election process. “Calling fraud before anyone has voted has proven to drive down your side’s turnout — which is the last thing recall proponents need when they only 24 percent of voters are even registered Republican.”

Even some leading Republicans and recall advocates say that they aren’t too worried about a Democratic “steal” — if only because they’ve worked for months to amass a generous cushion to ensure they’ll have more than 1.5 million valid signatures.

“I’m not overly concerned about the registrars doing anything nefarious,’’ said GOP strategist Dave Gilliard, a consultant with the recall. “I do think there might be some pressure on them to look at every signature as closely as possible,’’ but that won’t change the outcome, he predicted.

“We’ve been validating these [signatures] internally — all the way from the beginning — and we know exactly how many valid signatures we have. We will have well over what we need to qualify.”

Recall campaign spokesperson Randy Economy said he’s more concerned with partisan talk from Democratic officials like Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis — who will call the date of the election under state law.

She has been outspoken about her view that the recall is a “quirky opportunity to slip a Republican governor into the bluest state in the union,” and to undermine Newsom’s upcoming 2022 re-election campaign. California’s lieutenant governor is elected separately from the governor and Kounalakis would remain in office even if Newsom is recalled.

“She’s going on national news shows like CNN and making comments about the petition process… in clear violation of her responsibility as an elected official — especially since she’s going to have some sort of a say in the fate of this process,” he said. “I would advise her that any time she makes a comment in public, and she’s going to be held accountable for her words.’’

Gilliard cautions there may also be concern that — since the last recall of Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 — the state legislature has amended the certification process by adding steps that will extend the timeline and likely delay the election date.

After the March 17 deadline to submit signatures, county registrars will have 30 days to certify the process. Then, the state Department of Finance has up to 30 days to determine how much the election will cost — followed by a joint legislative budget committee which analyses that report, which could take another 30 days.

“It looks right now the election at the earliest would be the third week in September, and the latest would be the second week in November,” Gilliard said.

Timing matters to recall proponents because the further out the election is, the greater the chance that voter frustration could melt away. Californians have been particularly frustrated in the past three months after months of business restrictions and school closures, on top of a deadly winter surge and slow vaccine rollout. Newsom is counting on life approaching normal by the fall after every adult has had an opportunity to get vaccinated and restrictions lift.

California Assemblymember Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin), who just published a book called “Recall Newsom: The Case Against America’s Most Corrupt Governor,” said the delays and the process may ramp up grassroots GOP concerns about a fair process in the wake of last year’s presidential election.

But he said that’s even more reason for supporters to keep the recall’s drive for signatures at top speed for the next two weeks. “Obviously, you cannot be completely certain of anything,’’ Kiley said. “It’s just all the more reason why we really want to keep our foot on the accelerator.”

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