Newsom recall will cost California taxpayers $215 million, state officials say

An analysis released Thursday projects the recall election against Gov. Gavin Newsom will cost at least $215 million, less than what elections officials initially estimated but a large enough price tag that local governments across California will need the state to pick up the tab.

The estimate, contained in a memo to the Joint Legislature Budget Committee, was calculated by surveying elections officials from each of the state’s 58 counties. It could provide the basis for one of two fiscal analyses required by California law, both of which must be completed before a date can be set for the special election in which voters could oust Newsom from office.

“The total costs reported by all counties to conduct a special statewide recall election is $215 million,” state Department of Finance Director Keely Martin Bosler wrote in the letter to lawmakers. “This estimate does not reflect the Secretary of State’s costs associated with a statewide recall election.”

The bulk of the costs for the election would be incurred on the local level, where elections are conducted. State costs are generally much smaller. A spokesperson for Secretary of State Shirley Weber didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about what other expenses might be expected.

Critics of Newsom submitted more than enough voter signatures this spring to trigger a recall election, setting the stage for only the second gubernatorial recall in California history. Then-Gov. Gray Davis lost a 2003 recall, replaced by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. So far, almost six dozen Californians have filed statements of intention seeking to run in the recall election — including former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, 2018 gubernatorial hopeful John Cox and reality TV star and retired Olympic decathlete Caitlyn Jenner, all Republicans.

No prominent Democrats have joined the preliminary field. Candidates can’t formally join the race until after an election date is chosen by Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis.

A poll by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies that was co-sponsored by The Times and released last month found only 36% of registered voters surveyed would remove Newsom from office.

Though the date of the recall election is somewhat in flux, the survey conducted by state finance officials may speed up one of the two required fiscal analyses. Legislators significantly revamped the process in 2017, adding time for voters who signed recall petitions to withdraw their signatures and ensuring costs of the special election are taken into account. The process is likely to result in a special statewide election in early fall.

The survey of California counties unsurprisingly found most of the costs for conducting a recall election would come from the state’s urban centers — with Los Angeles County estimating expenses of $49.1 million, San Bernardino County pegging its costs at $32 million and San Diego County reporting an estimate of $20 million. Alameda County’s estimate of almost $21 million in recall election costs was the highest of any county in Northern California.

In April, elections officials across the state painted a more dire picture, offering a preliminary estimate of $400 million. That number, they said, was based on the costs incurred in the 2020 election cycle.

Neither effort to crunch the numbers should be considered complete. A large number of candidates running to replace Newsom, for example, can lead to multipage ballots and voter guides, adding on additional expenses. In 2003, for example, there were 135 candidates on the ballot seeking to replace Davis.

It’s also uncertain what kinds of in-person regulations might be adopted by the Legislature for the recall if COVID-19 conditions should worsen. The pandemic prompted lawmakers earlier this year to extend last year’s temporary rules requiring elections officials to mail a ballot in the recall election to all of California’s 21 million voters.

How legislators will respond to the recall election’s cost is still unclear. As the Legislature continues to negotiate a state budget with Newsom ahead of next week’s constitutional deadline, lawmakers could choose to put a precise number in the spending plan or simply agree to cover all election-related costs.

Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, said it’s important that state officials ensure the funding will be sufficient to cover the expenses.

“County election departments have been hit hard by staff losses, budget cuts and an uptick in harassment and personal attacks,” she said. “This funding will give them peace of mind that they will have adequate resources to carry out their responsibilities.”

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