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California Recall Vote Has Election Officials Racing The Clock

Scott Cohn
Santa Cruz County Clerk Tricia Webber and Vote-by-mail Coordinator John Beck go over preparations for the Sept. 14 gubernatorial recall election.

Tricia Webber thought she would have more time to prepare for her first election as Santa Cruz County Clerk and Registrar of Voters. After all, election officials normally have months or even years to get everything in place. But the Sept. 14 vote on whether to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom is no normal election.
“A recall, by its nature, is done in a shorter time frame,” Webber told KAZU. “I just didn't expect it to be 70 days once they finally declared the date.”
Counties have until Monday to mail ballots, which will go to every registered voter in the state.
Webber assumed her position in December following the retirement of longtime county clerk Gail Pellerin. Just four months later, Secretary of State Shirley Weber announced that the recall campaign had gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. Last month, Lt. Gov Eleni Kounalakis set the Sept. 14 election date, putting election officials across the state on a race against the clock.
For Webber, who has worked in the clerk’s office in various capacities since 1997, it is not her first election. She worked on the 2003 referendum that recalled Gov. Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger, the only other gubernatorial recall in state history to make it onto the ballot. Still, she had hoped to have more time to ease into her first election in charge, which would have been the 2022 primaries and midterms.
“I thought that we would be able to enjoy an odd year, which is usually file maintenance and clean up,” she said.
Instead, Webber and her 11-person staff are in a whirlwind. Among the tasks they are racing to complete are securing locations for polling places, complicated by the fact that schools that are often used will be open on Election Day. Also, voting locations must be larger than normal to accommodate social distancing due to the pandemic. The county must also hire temporary employees to assist with vote counting, and election officers to work at the polling places.
Webber said there is a ready pool of workers, many of whom already worked on last November’s election. Still uncertain is how the rapidly changing pandemic will affect things, but Webber said they will be ready.
“We will be providing PPE (personal protective equipment), the same PPE that we did in November,” she said. “We will be sanitizing multiple times during the day and then we're waiting to see what will happen as far as public health guidelines.”
Ahead of Election Day, officials have been scrambling to meet an onslaught of other deadlines. They included sending ballots to roughly 1,800 absentee voters—many of them overseas or in the military—no later than July 31. Santa Cruz County Vote-by-mail Coordinator John Beck said that part of the process went well.
“People have received their emails, and some people have already faxed their ballots back,” he said.
The tight time frame surrounding the election is almost certainly no accident, according to former California Assembly Speaker Pro-Tempore Fred Keeley, D-Santa Cruz, who noted that Democrats allied with Gov. Newsom controlled the calendar and were able to use it to the Governor’s advantage.
“Let's hold this election as soon as we possibly can because of the unknown factor — of what does happen with COVID, wildfires, the economy, back to school, all the rest of the issues,” he said.
Keeley said politics also likely played a role in the decision to send a mail-in ballot to every registered voter in the state.
“You're already going to be mailed a ballot, fill it out and send it in,” he said.
By making it easier to vote, Keeley said, Democrats could help overcome an “enthusiasm gap,” with polls showing Republicans far more engaged over the prospect of removing a prominent Democratic governor than Democrats are over retaining him.
In addition to the logistical challenges, the election will be expensive. The California Department of Finance estimates the process will cost state taxpayers $276 million. That includes nearly $1.4 million in Santa Cruz County, and nearly $3 million in Monterey County, according to data compiled by the Secretary of State’s office.
Among the biggest costs is printing and mailing the ballot, a process that has been complicated by various court challenges over the language in the accompanying voter’s guide, and the fact that there are only a handful of printers qualified for the job.
Webber said voters will receive a packet that is thicker than normal, because the ballot and voter’s guide are combined for the recall. The ballot itself is a simple, two-sided card.
“On the front, it asks the question, shall the governor be recalled or removed from office? And you answer yes or no. And on the back of the card are the 46 candidates that are looking to be a replacement if the governor is indeed recalled,” she said.
Even if a voter votes no on the recall, they can still vote for a replacement candidate should the recall pass. A simple majority on the first question means Gov. Newsom is out, replaced by the candidate in the second question who receives the most votes. There is no minimum percentage needed to win, and Newsom is not allowed to appear on the list to replace himself.
Because of that, Keeley—who opposes the recall but says he has not been involved in the campaign—worries that Democrats made a tactical mistake in not also fielding a backup candidate should Newsom lose, which he said is a real possibility.
“These things can turn on a dime,” he said. “I think this is a very real threat to the governor, but more importantly, to Democratic governance in California.”
Back in the Santa Cruz County Clerk’s office, Tricia Webber and her staff are gearing up for the next steps in the process. Beginning Monday, they can start to process ballots—meaning they can sort them and verify signatures—to prepare them for counting once the polls close on September 14. Mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Election Day and received within 7 days after the election in order to be counted.
Webber said all signatures on mail-in ballots are individually verified by election workers, who all have received FBI training on signature matching.
After the election, there is still no rest for the team. Webber said the recall has put them behind schedule for next year’s elections, as well as the once-a-decade redistricting following the 2020 Census.
Among the offices up for grabs next year are every seat in Congress, the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and, again, California Governor.

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