As the Gavin Newsom recall effort heats up, the key number to keep in mind is 1,495,709 --
the total amount of verified signatures of registered voters that the
petitioners must hand in to get the recall on the ballot.
But as we’ve seen so often with recalls (and petitions
in general), signatures will be tossed out. The reasons are usually mundane,
which is what happens when you’re collecting signatures on the street and
frequently paying people to collect. The problems range from the signers not
being registered to signing more than once to living out of district or state
or (in rarer instances) using fake names. While most recall attempts fail
because petitioners do not hand in any signatures, over the last nine years
(2012-2020) I count at least 129 recall attempts throughout the country in
which petitioners handed in enough unverified signatures, but the rejection rate resulted in the recall failing to get on the
ballot. 32 of these rejections happened in California. So while not an everyday occurrence, signature failures are certainly
something to consider.
Because of this potential for signature failure, the petitioners
have made it clear that they are shooting for a significant cushion for the
recall effort. They are looking to collect 2 million signatures, which would
put them 25 percent over the minimum.
Which leads to the natural question – is that enough? Currently,
petitioners seem to be getting verification at an 80-83 percent clip, which would
work. They would need a little over 1.8 million at that rejection rate. But a look at other recalls and ballot measures may get them a little
In the past, I've seen articles suggesting that a general rule of thumb is a 10-15 percent failure rate, though I'm not sure where that is from (and the article links are now dead). We actually see a 10 percent number
referenced in the law – you just have to scroll down in the Code. State level
recalls require all the signatures to be verified. But local recalls use a very different law.
If there are more than 500 signatures submitted for the
recall, the clerks can use a random sampling verification technique (take
sampling/determine the number of valid/extrapolate to the rest). Using this
procedure, if valid signatures top 110 percent of the minimum number, the
recall qualifies and moves to the ballot. (If it is between 90-110 percent,
they verify each one. If it is below 90 percent, it fails).
But the 10 percent total is clearly too low. So let's look at what we've seen in California and elsewhere:
Looking at our closest comparison in California, the 2003 Gray
Davis gubernatorial recall, the failure rate was just under 18%. That's pretty much where the Newsom effort is now.
Since then, there have been two state level recalls, both
against state Senators. In both cases, we saw a significantly worse result for petitioners,
even though the recalls got to the ballot. In 2018, the failure rate for the
State Senator Josh Newman recall topped 25 percent (73.66 percent were
The 2008 recall effort against State Senator Jeff Denham,
saw a 41.5 failure rate (58.58 percent were validated). This verification was
under the random sampling technique (the law was changed in 2018 to remove
state level recalls, at least partially to slow the Newman recall effort).
There is another recent recall effort that is also worth
considering. In 2018, Santa Clara JudgeAaron Persky faced a recall, the first against a judge in California since 1932
(and the first in the US since 1982). The judicial district was much larger than
a regular state senate one. Petitioners needed 58,634 signatures to get on the
ballot. Using the random sampling rules, the registrar found that 3389 of 4727
signatures were valid. Since the petitioners handed in 94,539, this was more
than enough to get on the ballot. But the failure rate was over 28 percent (the
verification rate was 71.6 percent).
Do initiatives tell us anything on this front? Prop 22 was the most high profile initiative in the 2020 race, as petitioners spent
more than $6.4 million to get on the ballot. Petitioners needed 623,212 and
handed in 987,813 signatures. Once again using the random sampling method, 22.5 percent were found invalid (77.5 percent were verified). A similar result can
be seen in a Proposition that required a higher signature total. Prop. 15, which spent nearly $6 million to get on the ballot, was a Constitutional Amendment,
which therefore required 997,139, putting us closer to the amount needed for
Newsom. Petitioners handed in 1.75 million. Once again, the random sampling
method found 25.4 percent invalid (74.60 percent were verified).
In other states, we see a potentially different picture.
The last state to hold a gubernatorial recall, Wisconsin had a very different
recall law. As Richard
Winger of Ballot Access News pointed
out, Wisconsin allows the signatures of any eligible voter in the state, not
just any registered voter (as in other states). This makes signature rejection
much less likely.
The petitioners in the Scott Walker recall garnered an
enormous cushion. They handed in 931,053 signatures and they only needed
540,000. At the end of the day, 900,938
were found valid (4,001 duplicates, 26,114 struck out by staff). This is a 3.2%
failure rate. For Lieutenant Governor Rebecca Kleefisch (who appeared on a
separate petition), the failure rate was 4%.
The Wisconsin verification also appeared to be different
and I am unsure if the fact that Governor Scott Walker effectively conceded the
success of the signature gathering portion eliminated the challenges.
In the Senate races in Wisconsin in 2018 we saw some similar numbers. For the
Senator Galloway petitions, there were
21,022 signatures handed in, and the GAB struck out 1,658. Galloway further
challenged 863. The board did not bother looking at the challenged signatures.
So the failure rate on the GAB was 7.8%. If we add in the Galloway protests, it
is close to 12%. The Senator Wanggaard
petitions are a little more complex, as he challenged many more
signatures -- if all of his signature challenges had been approved, it would be
about a 20% failure rate. From the board's review it was less than 3%. For Senator
Moulton, the board threw out 5.7% of the signatures. His
challenges would have pushed it up to about 11%. For Senator
Fitzgerald, the board tossed out 4.1%. With his challenges, it
would be just under 12%.
In the 2011 Wisconsin nine Senate recall races, saw a
higher rejection rate, but again it was not clear what was happening. Two
petitions posted an alleged 25-27.5% failure rate, there are two (both
Democrats) with a 17-18% failure rate, there are three with a 6-8%, and two
with effectively zero.
What about the other state legislative recalls of the
last decade? We have four to choose from.
In Colorado in 2013, two State Senators lost recall
elections. Senate President John Morse (D) saw a 37.5 percent invalidation
rate. Colorado historically seemed to have a high invalidation rate, so this
wasn’t a surprise. But the second recall was. State Senator Angela Giron (D)
saw a 6 percent invalidation rate with only 818 signatures tossed out of 13,466. Petitioners
used a new program that allowed them to check the signatures, which explained
In 2011, there were two other recall efforts, with very
different verification rates. Arizona
Senate Majority Leader Russell Pearce recall saw a 42% failure rate. (Arizona
also has a historically high failure rate on the local level). On the other
hand, the 2011 Michigan State Rep Paul
Scott recall had a 9.4%
A last example to consider: The 2011 Miami-Dade Mayoral
recall, which collected over 100,000 signatures, saw a
16% failure rate.
One other factor to consider is claims of deliberate signature
fraud. There are a few examples of signing fraud. Japan just saw a crazy
version of this, with the lead petitioner hiring people to simply copy the names
out of the registration book. In general, widespread signature fraud appears to be both
fairly rare and not that difficult to uncover.
That’s not to say that they won’t be made. The claim of
deliberate fraud can certainly ignite a party’s base and help muddy the waters
against a recall effort. Much as in the
last election, the Republicans banged this drum repeatedly in the Scott
Walker recall campaign, where they claimed that a huge proportion of the
signatures would be fake – the so-called Mickey Mouse
signature. However, elections
officials claimed to have found only 5 fake names in the Walker
petitions: Adolf Hitler, Mick E. Mous, Donald L. Duck, Fungky Van Den Elzen,
and I Love Scott Walker Thanks.
The Davis campaign seems to have had a similar argument,
though once again it was the Republican side that made the claim. One of the companies
that said they led the petition gathering efforts claimed that Davis forces
ran a "blocking" campaign by hiring all the good
signature gathering companies. They also intimate that Democrats were planning
on submitting deliberately false signatures, though that seems unlikely (and crazy -- more likely than not, if the verification process missed a fake signature, it would have been included in the count).
One last issue that may impact the signature race is the
signature removal provision. California now gives Newsom 30 business days to
fight fire with fire and collect signatures from signers of the petition asking
to have their names removed. This law was adopted during the Newman recall and
did not work for him, but it did help out a Newport Beach Councilman. Nevada also saw uses of a similar provision. It may be a long shot, but if the numbers
are close, a signature removal effort could make all the difference.
What does this mean for the Newsom recall? It is not
clear. The petitioners clearly are feeling quite confident. This could be due
to a belief that exhibiting confidence will get more people to sign. Or it
could be that they feel they have a better vetting method,
so they are removing more of the obvious failed signatures before handing them
in. They may also feel that they have better training of signature gatherers,
which would likely improve the signature verification rate.
On the opposite side of the coin, it could be that the strong performance so far was the relatively low hanging fruit of the recall effort, and the last group needed to get over the hump will see a higher failure rate. One of the advantages that the Davis petitioners had was that turnout in the 2002 election was so low, getting on the ballot required an historically small percentage of signatures. That is not the case here, and the last group of signers may be harder to get.
The track record
does suggest that a 25 percent cushion can be enough, but it may make for a
closer result than petitioners would like.