Essential Politics: A $400-million Newsom recall election?

By John Myers,
Los Angeles Times,
April 26, 2021


It’s well known that elections have consequences. They also have price tags.

With signs pointing to a special election this fall at which voters could remove Gov. Gavin Newsom from office, local officials from across California believe the cost of conducting the election could run as high as $400 million.

The estimate is four to five times higher than rough guesses bandied about in recent months and is equal to a cost of about $18 per registered voter — more than double what local elections officials say was spent on California elections in 2018.

It’s a price they say counties, which are struggling to cover pandemic-related costs for health and human services programs, will need the state to cover.

“There is an urgency to this,” said Donna Johnston, the registrar of voters in Sutter County and president of the California Assn. of Clerks and Elected Officials.

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Who will pay for the recall?

Johnston’s group bases its $400-million estimate on a preliminary tally of costs from the November 2020 election, for which every registered voter was mailed a ballot and in-person voting was subject to strict rules designed to minimize the risk of coronavirus infections.

The recall election will be conducted in a similar fashion. Already, state officials have extended the mailing of ballots to all voters for any 2021 special elections. 

With expenses reported by 33 of California’s 58 counties, the clerks association’s tally for last November stands at $292 million; final numbers could make it the most expensive election in state history. It was also an election subsidized by federal coronavirus relief funds. In some small counties, the money covered the majority of election expenses. 

There are no expectations for that kind of help to conduct a gubernatorial recall.

“It would force some very hard decisions with only county resources,” Johnston said.

A little-noticed provision in a 2017 California law that revised recall election rulesseems to indicate that the state will pick up the tab for “reasonably necessary” costs but also notes that there must be funds “designated for that purpose.”

A spokesman for Newsom declined to say whether the governor supports setting aside money in the new state budget for a recall election. The governor’s campaign spokesman, Dan Newman, said Californians would rather spend the money on helping schools and small businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The leaders of the two legislative houses, asked about support for the state paying the cost of the election, instead criticized the recall’s proponents.

“Neither the state nor the counties should be stuck footing the bill for such an unnecessary election,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood).

“This is a very expensive partisan Republican ploy, and as usual they are leaving the taxpayers holding the bag, any way you look at it,” Senate President Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said in an email to The Times.

Randy Economy, a spokesman for the Newsom recall campaign, said some costs — notably the requirement to mail every registered voter a ballot — could have been avoided if officials would allow a “traditional” election. He said the governor, through his actions, is the one who bears responsibility.

“You can’t put a price on democracy,” Economy said. “The only reason we’re in this position is Gavin Newsom.”

California’s long list of election IOUs

The looming question of who will pay to conduct the recall is a stark reminder of how California elections have been chronically underfunded for years.

“While the state reaps regular benefits from county elections administration, it only sporadically provides funding to counties for election activities,” the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office wrote in a 2017 report.

The report estimated the state’s total IOU to counties for past election mandates at the time at $71 million and said it would grow by about $30 million every general election year without legislative action. Johnston, the president of the clerks association, said some estimates now put the state’s election IOU at $160 million.

Voters may not realize the potential consequences. In a 2017 column, I noted that California law allows counties to simply stop offering some of these election servicesif the state doesn’t cough up enough cash: “They could refuse to provide absentee ballots to anyone who wants one. Or perhaps even more provocative in the current election-integrity climate, they could refuse to use long-standing legal rules when asked to verify a voter’s signature on a provisional ballot. No money, no mandated services.”

As new election rules take effect, counties will keep making the case for the state to pay its fair share. A new law allowing voter registration up to, and including, election day didn’t come with clear funding for locals — a decision challenged in December by San Diego County.

One thing we know for sure is that the state has the money. Already, there are estimates of a massive tax windfall and discretionary revenue in the state budget totaling as high as $20 billion through the summer of 2022.

“The best way for the state to show the counties some love is to give them the money,” said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. (Full Story)