California Election Officials Spending $16 Million on Gavin Newsom Recall Vote Advertising

Ahead of the vote to potentially remove California Governor Gavin Newsom, state election officials are banking big on a campaign to get out the vote with $16 million for a month of nonpartisan advertising.

Hoping to combat voter apathy, the effort could benefit the sitting governor by increasing turnout. The campaign will appear on billboards, radio, and digital ads, television, and other tactics to educate voters about the recall and casting a ballot.

California voters received ballots by mail, but according to polling by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, a plague of disinterest and inertia has officials, especially state Democrats, alarmed. Some voters may not know about the race because of its unusual timing in the late summer of a non-election year.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber said on a call with Associated Press reporters she wants to encourage voter turnout across the political spectrum.

"My goal is 100 percent voting, and why? Because I think everyone has a voice that needs to be heard," Weber said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Gavin Newsom Recall
A sign against the recall is posted behind California Governor Gavin Newsom as he talks with volunteers who are phone banking against the recall at Manny's on August 13 in San Francisco, California. Newsom kicked off his "Say No" to recall campaign as he prepares to face a recall election on September 14. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California has almost twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. That makes it hard to untangle the public policy goal of urging people to exercise their right to vote from the reality that Democrats are likely to benefit, said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School with a focus on government ethics.

"It's probably just difficult to structure any big get-out-the-vote effort in California without it looking like you are also supporting Democrats," she said.

Weber, who was joined on the call by Attorney General Rob Bonta, also a Newsom appointee, said promoting voter turnout was not in service of a partisan aim.

"I would always ask the question: What is the alternative to it? To suppress the voting because you think there may be more Democrats registered in California than others?" she said.

California lawmakers approved $35 million for the secretary of state to spend on voter education in a party-line vote in June. It was part of a bill that allowed for an earlier recall, which Democrats hoped would help Newsom defeat it.

Weber's office set aside half for the statewide education campaign and chose The Sax Agency of Los Angeles from among four applicants. The agency has won other government contracts, including on census efforts and a public awareness campaign about masking during the coronavirus.

Sax worked on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2020 on a project aimed at motivating Black voters, according to its bid. All other listed work was nonpartisan.

The California Republican Party claimed the agency is pro-Democrat. It pointed to Sax's work with the DCCC and an Instagram post after the 2020 presidential election featuring President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris with the caption, "No words, just a big sigh of relief."

"It is right to take action to encourage all voters to cast a ballot but hiring a Democrat firm at taxpayer expense only reinforces that Gavin Newsom's partisan priorities come first," Chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson said in a statement.

Stacey Legay, the account manager for Sax, said the campaign will target voters across demographics, locations and political ideologies. As an example of the campaign's cross-party appeal, she said it put up billboards in a heavily Vietnamese area of Orange County, noting those voters tend to lean Republican.

"Frankly, we don't care what happens, other than that we want everyone to come out and vote," she said.

A 30-second ad shared by the campaign explains that every registered California voter will get a ballot and details how people can track theirs through the secretary of state website. The campaign plans to target specific populations, including Black, Asian and Latino voters, veterans and members of the military and formerly incarcerated people, as well as voters across age groups and all 58 counties.

It's part of an effort called Vote Safe California, adopted during the pandemic when the state started sending mail-in ballots to all California voters. Previously only some counties mailed everyone a ballot.

A similar campaign ahead of the 2020 presidential election was mired in controversy after the state partnered with SKDK, a Washington-based firm whose managing partner, Anita Dunn, was a senior adviser to then-candidate Joe Biden, a Democrat. That prompted outcry from Republicans and even some Democrats.

Though the Legislature approved the money in June, the secretary of state did not award the contract until mid-August, just as recall ballots were hitting mailboxes. That's left the group with a short window of time to get out their messaging ahead of Election Day on September 14.

"Reminding people to go out and vote in September is like asking someone to have a new behavior," Legay said. "We're trying to drive a behavior change campaign in four weeks. I don't think there's a precedent of that."

Ballots have two questions: Should Newsom be recalled, and if so, who should replace him? Voters have 46 possible replacements to choose from. If a majority of voters want Newsom gone, the replacement with the most votes will become the governor.

Newsom's campaign and the state Democratic Party are urging voters to vote no on the recall and ignore the second question. The idea is to diminish interest in an alternative to Newsom but that's drawn criticism even within the Democratic Party from those who say it disenfranchises voters.

CA Secretary of State
The state of California is spending $16 million on a four-week blitz using billboards, radio and digital ads to educate people about how to vote in the recall election that could remove Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom from office. In this June 10, 2020, file photo, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber speaks at the Capitol in Sacramento, California. Rich Pedroncelli, File/AP Photo