By JEREMY B. WHITE
OAKLAND — Gov. Gavin Newsom will appear on recall ballots without his Democratic Party label after losing a last-minute legal fight Monday.
Newsom’s team had scrambled to correct an error that will now deprive him of his party preference on ballots for the Sept. 14 recall. Newsom sued Secretary of State Shirley Weber in late June, arguing that the law imposes a needlessly early deadline for recall targets to request their party designation and that voters deserve to see that information.
After hearing arguments Friday, however, Judge James P. Arguelles ruled late Monday against Newsom. Arguelles had already played an instrumental role in the recall by granting proponents four additional months to gather signatures — an extension that ultimately coincided with the worst months of the pandemic in California.
Arguelles disagreed with an argument from Newsom’s attorney that party status was a vital piece of information for voters, writing that the law offered candidates “discretion to inform recall voters about their party preferences, as opposed to imposing a requirement that voters be so informed.” Arguelles rejected the notion a “good faith error” on Newsom’s part should spare him.
“Governor Newsom argues that unique circumstances attending his untimely party designation support an order excusing the noncompliance,” Arguelles wrote, but “the court is not persuaded.”
Newsom’s legal team had asked for a decision this week before Weber finalizes the candidate roster on Friday so counties can begin preparing ballots.
A low-profile 2019 law that Newsom signed allows elected officials who are the targets of recalls to list their party designation. But Newsom’s legal team failed to ask for the governor to take advantage of that option when they responded to the recall petition in February 2020, the formal window to make that request. Newsom’s team called the omission unintentional and argued voters would benefit from knowing the governor’s party.
Attorneys for recall proponents and for Republican candidate Caitlyn Jenner argued that the law clearly barred Newsom from making such a change, and they assailed Newsom’s attempts to do so as an example of his inappropriately twisting the law to his purposes.
“At base this comes down to whether the governor of California has to follow the unambiguous law, and it just so happens a law he signed,” recall proponents’ attorney Eric Early argued on Friday. “This may be a bitter pill for the governor to swallow, but swallow it he must.”
While the election is set for Sept. 14, many more voters are expected to cast votes earlier via mail ballots that elections officials are set to send to every registered, active voter. Counties must send those ballots by Aug. 16.
While Newsom leads his Republican rivals in the polls and fundraising and benefits from California’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, the enthusiasm edge rests with the governor’s conservative foes. That increases the stakes for Newsom to turn out his Democratic base.
The impact of the ruling could be muted given Newsom’s broad name recognition in California. The California Democratic Party — which has spent some $1.5 million so far against the recall and pledged a mass turnout drive — said Monday that they were undeterred by Arguelles’ decision.
“Today’s ruling doesn’t change the facts: California Democrats are united behind Governor @GavinNewsom,” the party said in a tweet. “We’re ready to organize to beat the Republican Recall attempt.”