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Regional Interests

Shirley Weber, Appointed by Gov. Newsom, Now Oversees His Recall Election

Just months after she was confirmed as California’s top election official, Secretary of State Shirley Weber is already facing her first major challenge — overseeing the fall recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who appointed Weber to her post in December.

In her role, Weber will have to educate the public about the unique aspects of the election and set the state’s recall rules, all while preserving her impartiality at a time when election officials around the nation are facing partisan attacks over their election administration.

“We want to make sure people understand the process, understand what is being asked of them,” said Weber, in an interview. “And we want to have a great turnout so that it truly is a mandate from the people one way or the other.”

In the state’s 2003 recall election, 61% of registered voters cast ballots, a level of turnout in line with most gubernatorial elections in the state. And the table is set for high levels of voter participation this time after California voters turned out in historic numbers during the 2020 election.

And like last year, California voters will again receive a ballot in the mail by default for the recall election, a practice that has driven spikes in turnout.

But with nearly two decades having passed since the last recall, the challenge for Weber and local election officials will be to convey the “nuts and bolts” of the ballot, said Mindy Romero, Director of the Center for Inclusive Democracy at the University of Southern California.

The date of the recall election likely won’t be announced by Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis until the fall — leaving Weber just a couple of months to spread the word about voting deadlines.

And the recall ballot will also look different from a typical gubernatorial election: voters will first choose whether they support removing Newsom from office. They then select their preferred candidate to replace the governor should the recall question win support from 50% plus one of voters.

“If people feel unsure about what their vote even means, that could also potentially deter some people from participating,” said Romero. “And for people who aren’t as aware of [the election], that tends to, generally speaking, disproportionately impact chronically underrepresented groups,” like Black and Latino voters.

Within minutes of announcing that the recall campaign had collected enough valid signatures to force an election, Weber’s office tweeted a timeline of the recall’s path to the ballot, which includes a period for voters to withdraw their signatures from the recall petition and months for state analysts to determine the election’s cost.

“I’ve discovered that a lot of folks don’t understand the process,” Weber said. “Even friends and family members have called me and asked, ‘Did the governor get recalled? In other words, is it over? What happened? Did we miss something?'”

As the election nears, Weber could play a more active role in shaping the field of candidates.

The Secretary of State can set the qualifications for candidates hoping to get on the replacement ballot. In 2003, then-Secretary of State Kevin Shelley set the bar low: 65 voter signatures and a $3,500 filing fee. The result was a circus-like field of 135 candidates.

At the time, the state Supreme Court rejected a legal challenge to Shelley’s threshold, finding “The Secretary of State is the constitutional officer charged with administering California’s election laws, and his interpretations of those laws are entitled to substantial judicial deference.”

Brandon Stracener, a senior fellow at Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center, said despite the lack of clear statutory guidance on candidate qualifications in a recall election, Weber could be challenged to justify setting a higher threshold than existed in 2003.

“Secretaries of state historically have chosen the safe maximal-democracy approach, making it easy for replacement candidates to qualify,” said Stracener.

For her part, Weber sees little flexibility to change the requirements and potentially limit the field of candidates vying to replace Newsom.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of a power that would allow me to just change the requirements for running for office,” she said. “So will we avoid the 135 [candidates] or whatever it was last time? I would love to say we would and could, but I guess folks are already lining up.”

Weber is right about that: The number of people filing papers indicating their intent to run is nearing 60 and recall election is still months away.

Weber said she does plan to enforce a new requirement on the gubernatorial hopefuls: that all candidates hoping to appear on the ballot submit five years of tax returns to her office, per a law signed by Newsom in 2019.

Parts of the law relating to the tax returns of presidential candidates were gutted by the state Supreme Court, and some legal experts have questioned whether the requirements on gubernatorial candidates apply to a recall election.

“We’re going to follow the law…and not just say, well, this is a different kind of election so people can just do anything that they want to do,” Weber added.

As an appointee and political ally of Newsom, Weber’s actions in the recall will come under scrutiny, particularly by the governor’s opponents. It remains to be seen if Weber will use her platform to take a position on the recall question itself.

“I haven’t really decided yet,” she said.  “People have asked me what I think about it and I think as a citizen and elected official or not, I have a right to have an opinion about it  — [that] doesn’t affect what I have to do.”

Weber’s predecessor in the Secretary of State’s office, now-U.S. Senator Alex Padilla, regularly endorsed candidates and ballot measures in elections he was overseeing, which raised the eyebrows of election watchdogs.

“I really do hope that Secretary Weber is able to pull back from that trend line,” said Pete Peterson, Dean of the Pepperdine University School of Public Policy, and a candidate for Secretary of State in 2014.

“Her primary role is in the administration of elections in such a way that voters trust the process and at the same time are encouraged in a nonpartisan way to engage in our rights as voters,” he added.

Whatever the result of the election, Weber says she hopes to work with the state legislature to re-evaluate the state’s recall process going forward.

“I am concerned about if this is the best process,” she said. “Is this the best we can do with the resources that we will probably be spending on this process?”

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