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California's Newsom Is Only The 4th Governor To Face A Recall Vote


California's Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, will become just the fourth governor in American history to face a recall vote this week. So how exactly does this rarely used electoral tool actually work? Well, there's nobody better to set that answer up than Joshua Spivak. He studies recalls and is the author of "Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton To Gavin Newsom."

All right. Josh, let's start with the basics. Voters have to make two choices here. Explain those two choices.

JOSHUA SPIVAK: So they have a binary process where you vote yes or no on whether Gavin Newsom should be recalled and removed. And then there's a second vote - same day - on who should replace him. And what's a little interesting is that second vote is based on a plurality. And with 46 candidates, it results in kind of an odd situation that has upset some people, where Newsom could lose with 49.9% of the vote, and his replacement could win with less than 3% of the vote.

MARTÍNEZ: So to be clear on that second vote, all someone needs is just the most votes of the group in that second category.

SPIVAK: Exactly - the - what's called the first-past-the-post system. How we normally think of in elections, the person who receives the most votes wins.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, 18 years ago, California voters removed Governor Gray Davis and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. What similarities and what differences do you see this time around?

SPIVAK: The similarities are not that great. You know, there does feel a bit of a circus atmosphere, but nowhere near the same as occurred back then. There is voter anger. There's definitely a partisan divide. But the partisan divide is much greater today than it was back in 2003. I think everybody would agree on that, you know, throughout the country. Additionally, the state is vastly more Democratic. The Republicans have dropped 9% in terms of voter registration in the state, and that doesn't even really show how much they've dropped. In 2004, George W. Bush lost the state by 10%. In 2020, Donald Trump lost the state by 29%.

MARTÍNEZ: Joshua, there have been many people that have debated the worthiness of a recall election as a political tool. Do you think this partisan divide that you mentioned makes this tool maybe not as effective or as trustworthy as it should be or could be?

SPIVAK: Well, it's not used that often on a partisan level. Normally, it's a local tool that's used against, say, city council members or school board members or mayors. It has, however, increased in use against state legislators and governors. Three of the four have been this century. That said, it doesn't seem to succeed that well as a partisan tool. And it doesn't really help, so far, to use it that way. So Scott Walker faced a recall in 2012. I don't think you could say that the Democrats really benefited from that recall. The Gray Davis recall ended up ousting Davis and putting in a Republican in Arnold Schwarzenegger. But was that something that provided a long-term benefit for the Republicans? I can't see it in any way, shape or form that it did. The party has been almost driven out of the Golden State, and I'm not sure what less they could have hoped for coming out of that recall than what's actually occurred.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Joshua Spivak. He's the author of "Recall Elections: From Alexander Hamilton To Gavin Newsom." Joshua, thanks a lot.

SPIVAK: Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.