EXPLAINER: If Newsom recall fails, no winning candidate

Sep 12, 2021, 9:30 PM | Updated: Sep 13, 2021, 2:52 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — California voters are being asked to weigh in on two questions in Tuesday’s recall election for Gov. Gavin Newson. But it’s possible The Associated Press will only declare the winner in one of the races.

Here’s a look at how AP plans to handle the calls in an election with some unusual mechanics.


Forty-six candidates are on the ballot to replace Newsom but it won’t matter who comes in first unless the effort to remove the first-term Democrat succeeds.

California voters are being asked these two questions: Should Newsom be removed from office, yes or no, and who should replace him? If a majority votes yes on Newsom’s removal, the candidate who gets the most votes on the second question would become governor for the final year of Newsom’s term.

But if the recall fails, the question of who would replace him would be irrelevant.

That’s why The Associated Press will only declare a winner among the replacement candidates if the vote to recall Newsom is successful.

The top vote-getter on the replacement ballot could become obvious before the outcome of the recall vote is decided. Talk radio host Larry Elder, a Republican, is polling well ahead of the other 45 candidates. AP will report on the status of the replacement election in its news coverage, but will not declare a winner unless Newsom is recalled.

Winners are declared only when AP is fully confident a race has been won — defined most simply as the point when the number of remaining votes do not provide a path to victory for a trailing candidate.

Before Election Day, AP analysts study county-by-county election results for past races, vote-counting procedures, recount requirements and changes to state election laws, relying on information from AP’s election research group.

On election night, they study the incoming vote and are in constant contact with AP’s vote count team, in search of the latest information about what’s been counted so far and how many ballots may still be left to count.


If the races are close, it could take a while to determine the winners.

California historically takes weeks to count all the votes in statewide elections. In 2020, when nearly 18 million people cast ballots, a third of the votes in the presidential election were counted after Election Day. Two years earlier, more than 40% were counted after Election Day.

After the polls close, the first results released by most counties in California include the mail-in ballots and early-in person votes that officials were able to count before the polls closed. Then they start counting the votes cast on Election Day at local polling places, a process that can last through the night.

Mail ballots can arrive up to a week after Election Day and still be counted, as long as they are postmarked by Election Day. This can take days or weeks. Mail ballots are generally counted in the order they are received, so the last ballots to be counted tend to be the last ones to arrive.


In 2020, Republicans were much less likely than Democrats to vote by mail in part because then-President Donald Trump repeatedly claimed — without evidence — that voting by mail was unsafe and susceptible to fraud.

If that trend continues, the results in the recall election could swing back and forth on election night, depending on which types of votes are being reported — mail ballots or in-person votes.

Most California voters cast their ballots by mail, a trend that accelerated during the pandemic as many voters were reluctant to enter crowded polling places on Election Day. About 87% of California voters cast their ballots by mail in last year’s presidential election.

For Tuesday’s election, all 22 million registered voters were sent a mail ballot.

Mail ballots take longer to process than in-person votes because election officials must remove the ballots from their envelopes, check the voter’s registration and make sure that the voter’s signature on the envelope matches the one on file. Then the votes can counted.

When voters cast ballots in person, officials perform security measures at the polling place so the votes can be counted soon after the polls close.

Voters who don’t want to vote by mail can vote in person, on Election Day or during the early voting period. Voters can also drop off mail ballots at local polling places, county election offices or in county drop boxes.


Ohlemacher is the AP’s Election Decision Editor.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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EXPLAINER: If Newsom recall fails, no winning candidate