With exactly one month left to gather signatures, the effort to force California Governor Newsom to fight for his political life in a special election appears on the verge of success.
Back in June 2020, against the advice of every political expert in the state, a group of volunteers began circulating a recall petition. The chances they would gather 1.5 million verifiable signatures were considered negligible. But they had several advantages previous volunteer efforts lacked.
For starters, the recall committee had access to thousands of volunteers who had already participated in an earlier effort to recall the governor. Before running out of time in February 2020, that recall campaign, while unsuccessful, had gathered over 350,000 signed petitions. That may not have been anywhere close to the number required, but was nonetheless an impressive achievement that required a well coordinated statewide effort.
When the new recall petition was approved for circulation in June, this army of volunteers was not only trained, but reenergized by Newsom’s response to the pandemic. His heavy handed approach, of dubious benefit, was added to a litany of preexisting complaints about his governance.
Another advantage this recall effort had was its skillful use of online resources. Even ten years ago, when smartphones were just beginning to become ubiquitous, these tactics could not have had the same impact. But by June 2020, it was possible to immediately offer virtually any registered voter a downloadable petition along with written and video information on how to print it and fill it out. It was also possible to coordinate volunteer efforts on social media groups, aggregate and map locations to get petitions or turn them in, and publicize rallies and signing events. The campaign did all of these things.
Another break came in mid-summer when Orrin Heatlie’s volunteer committee began working with Anne Dunsmore, a veteran political consultant. Dunsmore, who was involved in the successful Gray Davis recall in 2003, has a reputation for taking on campaigns against the odds. She quickly established momentum with her parallel committee.
Since then the synergy between these committees has put them on the brink of complete success. Using the same firm to process and verify signed petitions, but employing different strategies, Heatlie’s Recall Gavin 2020 committee of volunteers and Dunsmore’s Rescue California committee of professionals are on track to have gathered 1.4 million signed petitions as they enter the second week of February and the final month of collection. Because it is impossible to eliminate every petition that may be improperly completed or otherwise ineligible, the goal of the campaign is to collect 1.8 million signatures in order to be certain that at least 1.5 million will be verified.
How these signed petitions break down by source reveals unprecedented success with not one, but two unconventional means of signature gathering. Typically ballot initiatives must employ paid signature gatherers. In today’s market these paid petition circulation firms can charge as much as $10 per signature, although the price can vary considerably. It isn’t unusual for a campaign to enter into an agreement that starts at a lower price, but as time runs out and – as is often the case – harassment by operatives hired by the opposition becomes more intense, the price shoots up into the $10 per signature range. For powerful special interests like Uber or Lyft, or the California Teachers Association, or various industry groups, paying this much for signed petitions is not a problem. But for a grassroots recall campaign, it is unthinkable.
Instead, to-date the Recall Gavin 2020 volunteers have gathered over 1.1 million signatures. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this achievement. Prior to this, the most productive volunteer signature gathering efforts in history would include the 2014 attempt to force a referendum on AB 1266 (transgender bathrooms), where despite narrowly failing to qualify, about a half-million signatures were gathered by volunteers. To find anything of similar scale before that requires going all the way back to 1978, where estimates of the volunteer share of signatures to qualify the famous Prop. 13 (limiting property taxes) are also around a half-million.
The Recall Gavin 2020 volunteers have collected more than twice as many signatures as the previous records. And they have over 5,000 volunteers working every weekend to collect more.
The other unconventional method to gather signatures is being employed by Dunsmore’s Rescue California committee. Using targeted direct mail, they are sending recall petitions and reply envelopes to millions of Californians. Results so far indicate this is a cost-effective alternative to paid signature gathering. According to Rescue California, they will complete the direct mail objective of mailing 3.5 million households by February 7, and that so far they have received over 270,000 signed recall petitions thru these direct mail efforts. Based on the timing of the mailings, with half of them still to be delivered and a significant proportion of the rest just received, the committee expects to collect additional hundreds of thousands of signed petitions over the next few weeks. According to Dunsmore, these direct mail petitions are validating at an extraordinary rate of 98 percent.
Success catalyzes success. If there was a tipping point in this recall campaign, it would probably be in early November, when two things happened. On November 6 the campaign was granted a 120 day extension to gather signatures, based on their appeal that COVID-19 restrictions hampered the ability for volunteers to circulate petitions. Also around that time, the campaign announced they had gathered over 700,000 signed petitions. With more time, and an already impressive total of signed recall petitions, money and support began to pour in.
Reports just filed with the California Secretary of State, combined with disclosures from committee spokespersons indicate the two committees together have already raised over $3.4 million. Rescue California has raised $2.3 million from over 13,000 contributors, and the Recall Gavin 2020 committee has raised over $900,000 from several thousand donors as well.
Leaving nothing to chance, Rescue California has just added a paid signature gathering effort for the final 4-5 weeks, using funds provided by a group of Silicon Valley donors. For those observers who felt relying merely on volunteers and direct mail was a risky approach, this decision – made possible by the recent surge in donations – further increases the probability of success.
It appears inevitable that a very public trial of Gavin Newsom’s conduct as governor is about to begin. By extension, this recall election will put on trial the entire ruling class and super-majority party Newsom is part of, and the failed policies they have perpetrated on ordinary working Californians. This recall election will also, of course, be an opportunity for new candidates with new ideas to challenge Newsom and everything he represents.
The nation, and the world, will be watching.