There is a real chance that Newsom will lose this election and be recalled. That remains unlikely, but it could happen. And if it does, perhaps as much as half the electorate will have abdicated its responsibility to help choose his successor, leaving that decision entirely in the hands of the people who want Newsom drummed out of office.
Democrats and other Newsom supporters will howl and rail if Larry Elder, Kevin Faulconer, John Cox or some other Republican challenger takes Newsom’s job with a fraction of the support Newsom has. But by not helping to choose his possible successor, they are almost guaranteeing it will be someone they can’t stand. The governor could win 49.9% of the vote—perhaps nine million votes or so—and lose the recall. If only 50% of the voters bother making a choice on the ballot’s second question, someone like Elder could be elected with maybe one-third of those votes, or about three million. In other words, nine million Californians could vote to keep Newsom, and only three million could prefer Elder—and the conservative radio host would replace Newsom in office. In theory, if half the voters sit out half the election, one of the Republicans could win with even less than that, though public opinion polls suggest the top GOP candidate will probably pull about a third of the Republican vote.
Rather than complain about such a scenario later, Newsom supporters have the power to prevent it, right now. After all, there aren’t just two dozen Republicans on the ballot. There are also nine Democrats, two Greens, a Libertarian, and ten candidates who list no party preference. Most of these folks are just that, regular folks (if you consider an adult entertainer, a cannabis policy advisor and a hairstylist “regular folks”). If instead of voting for no one, Newsom’s supporters coalesce around one of them, that person could win the replacement race in a landslide. Of course, Newsom won’t endorse any of them. He’s not going to muddy his message by repeating Cruz Bustamante’s disastrous “Vote no on the recall, but then vote for me” campaign of 2003. He’s not going to urge you to select Kevin “Meet Kevin” Paffrath, a real estate millionaire and YouTube personality who is a recall-supporting Democrat. He won’t tell you to support Joel Ventresca, a retired San Francisco airport analyst and progressive labor activist who’s run unsuccessfully for local offices, including Mayor of San Francisco. He’s not going to back Jacqueline McGowan, the aforementioned cannabis expert who is terrified that a Trump-loving Republican might capture Newsom’s seat. But that doesn’t mean that Californians who vote No on the recall itself shouldn’t make their voices heard just as loudly on the rest of the ballot, by voting for one of the 46 they find the most appealing (or least appalling). A winner from the non-GOP field might not have the preferred experience or knowledge, but could at least align ideologically with Newsom and not plunge the state into a year of legislative gridlock and hyperpartisan dysfunction (by the way, you can't just write in Newsom or Hillary Clinton or Steph Curry or your dog, either. A write-in vote for someone who's not a certified write-in candidate won't be counted. The Secretary of State will release a list of the qualified write-in contenders on September 3).
I know that hundreds of thousands of Californians, maybe even millions, have already voted. I know that many of them deliberately skipped the second question. I get that Newsom wants everyone to Just Say No. If he does lose to someone with so few votes, he’ll be able to argue the whole election was a sham, fueling his campaign to reclaim the office in November 2022. But I take my sacred voting right extremely seriously. Until 2020, I always voted in person. In more than 40 years of voting, I have missed only one election (an unexpected runoff after a special election for a state Assembly seat that happened while I was climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro). This ballot asks us whether the governor should be recalled, and if he is, who should replace him. Surrendering your right to have a say on that second decision goes against the very point of the franchise.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in California by almost two to one. If Newsom can motivate enough of them to turn out, he should rebuff the recall fairly easily. But if enough of them sit this out, or even vote to remove him, he could be in trouble. Then, Democrats who leave the replacement question blank may end up feeling like those who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton did when they awoke on November 4, 2016 to President-elect Trump.
I’m not here to argue for or against Newsom. It’s not my place to tell you how to vote on the recall itself, or how I intend to. But sticking your head in the sand is not participating in your democracy. It’s letting someone else make the choice for you. I’m not about to do that, and neither should you.