California Counties Plan to Ask Newsom to Cover His Recall Costs

  • Recall could cost $400 million; budget surplus could help
  • Special legislative elections also will strain county coffers

California election officials are preparing to make a delicate request of Gov. Gavin Newsom: They want state dollars to pay for the election that could kick him out of office.

A representative for county officials on Tuesday will make a plea for reimbursement of expenses from a possible statewide recall election at an Assembly budget subcommittee hearing. Those costs could reach $400 million, according to an estimate from the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.

“This is sort of an awkward conversation to have with a governor about funding his own recall,” said Natalie Adona, assistant clerk-recorder for the Nevada County, Calif., Registrar of Voters.

The secretary of state confirmed last week that the petition to recall Newsom, a Democrat, received the requisite number of valid signatures to trigger the election unless almost 134,000 people withdraw their signatures before June 8. It’s the first in a series of steps before Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis (D) sets an election date for later this year.

The counties’ request for additional funding comes ahead of a key May deadline to make last-minute changes in the budget, before the state Legislature approves it by June 15. California’s Department of Finance earlier this year calculated a $15 billion budget surplus for the coming fiscal year, a figure that will be updated later this month, spokesman H.D. Palmer said.

The finance department must provide a cost estimate for the recall election to the Legislature, Secretary of State Shirley Weber (D), and Newsom by June 8.

Photographer: Rich Pedroncelli/AP/Bloomberg via Getty Images
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D)

Election costs in the state have almost doubled since November 2012, according to the state’s association for election officials. In that election, it cost about $9.50 per voter, said association President Donna Johnston, who will testify on behalf of election officials Tuesday. Last November, the general election cost $18 per voter, she said.

Johnston estimates a recall will cost California election jurisdictions about $400 million, based on survey results from 33 of California’s 58 counties. A recent law to send all voters ballots by mail this year, new requirements on the minimum number of precincts, voting technology upgrades, and improvements to make voting locations more accessible to disabled people, are among reasons why.

“Ultimately, it is the taxpayer who pays for this, but if counties do not receive reimbursement it’s going to be very difficult for counties to cover the cost of this election,” Johnston said.

Special Elections

Under California election law, counties are responsible for paying for all elections except city elections. A provision in the law allows counties to seek reimbursement from the California State Controller’s Office for election costs tied to state mandates, but state funds have not been set aside for those reimbursements in about 10 years, said Geoff Neill, a legislative representative with the California State Association of Counties.

Jennifer Hanson, a spokeswoman for the controller’s office, said she could not comment on costs for the recall election when the election hasn’t been set, but that the office issues payment for any appropriation in the Budget Act that is in keeping with other laws and the state Constitution.

Neill said his organization is discussing the possibility of reimbursement with the state Department of Finance, not only for the recall, but for several special state legislative elections, including some prompted by Newsom’s appointments.

San Diego County held an election last month to replace Weber, the assemblywoman Newsom chose last December to serve as secretary of state. And Alameda County will hold an election June 29 for Democrat Rob Bonta’s Assembly seat following his appointment as state attorney general. Los Angeles County held a special election for a state Senate seat in March and will hold another special election for an Assembly seat on May 18.

Possible Help

There’s some hope for relief: The fiscal 2020–2021 budget approved last year included $35 million for the secretary of state to help counties administer elections, as well as help with education and outreach.

“We hope that that spirit of cooperation continues into the elections that it looks like we’ll be having this year,” Neill said.

Some officials aren’t holding their breath.

“We’re going to go into it knowing that we need to budget for it,” said Cynthia Paes interim registrar of voters for San Diego County, the second-most-populous county in the state.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tiffany Stecker in Sacramento, Calif. at tstecker@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Tina May at tmay@bloomberglaw.com; Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com

Top