Can California's Mail-in Ballots Save Gavin Newsom in Recall Election?

Twenty-two million.

That's the number of ballots that went out by the August 16 deadline and reached California voters by the end of last week for the recall election of Gavin Newsom

And with questions swirling over the strength of Newsom's recall campaign, the fact that every voter in a deep blue state gets a ballot mailed to them may save him in the end.

"It enables you to do get out the vote efforts for literally a month and traditionally communities of color always voted on election day," Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist Michael Trujillo told Newsweek. "It was always the white population that used the system to get an absentee ballot, but it never trickled down to our most economic disadvantaged population to do the same."

A Democratic pollster similarly told Newsweek the system provides an advantage for Newsom in a state where Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by 29 percentage points and 5 million votes.

"If you leave it to people's whim to drive to a polling place and vote you're only going to get the super-engaged folks," the source said. "Because Republicans are trying to do recall, Democrats are not enthusiastic. But by making voting easier, you get a better reflection of the registered voter base."

Gavin Newsom Faces Potential Recall
"Do you need to win by 30 or can you win by 7?" A Democratic pollster asked. "You don't have to win by 30, you just have to defeat the recall." In this photo, Governor Newsom holds a press conference for the official reopening of the state of California at Universal Studios Hollywood on June 15, 2021 in Universal City, California. Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

There are fewer hurdles now for voters who have recent experience with mail-in voting in November.

"Voters of color always had to find a ride, fill out a postcard months in advance for groups to send back to them in their own handwriting inviting them to vote," Trujillo added. "And neighbors who spoke the same language were recruited to yank folks out of their homes to vote on election day."

He noted that voters now have 28 days to fill out a ballot sitting on their kitchen table, "and the postage is free."

"If there's a silver lining in all of this for team Newsom, that's it," he said.

As of this writing, 5% of the mail ballots have been returned according to the PDI tracker, which shows Democrats have returned 604,981 ballots, while Republicans have returned 236,038 and Independents have returned 236,002.

But while Republicans agree California is a tough state to in which to win, they don't necessarily concede the universal mail-in ballots will allow Newsom to coast to victory.

Bryan Lanza, an informal advisor to top Republican opponent Larry Elder, told Newsweek that even his "liberal" mother voted to recall Newsom.

He said California had a "robust" absentee system before universal vote-by-mail, but the return rate was still only 50%. But Lanza criticized the ability of Democratic and progressive groups ability to help voters with ballots that are filled out but not sent in.

He called it ballot harvesting.

"It's very much a structural advantage that Democrats have the ability to ballot harvest," Lanza said, "but at end of the day, the voter has to love who they're voting for, and nobody loves Gavin."

But the GOP chairwoman recently said her party does it too — because it works.

California GOP chairwoman Jessica Millan Patterson has called ballot harvesting "our Number One priority," telling Politico "this is something we've been training our volunteers to do over the last two-and-a-half years now."

But for the Newsom campaign, it's not about ballot harvesting, it's about "ballot chasing."

Campaign officials told Newsweek their ballot chase program is critical in an all-mail election. They see this campaign as a 29-day marathon in which they are "able to track at the county level when they're returning their ballots," campaign manager Juan Rodriguez said.

Along with door knocking, the campaign is sending 17 million texts and making sure they're contacting everyone by phone.

"If everyone who has a ballot on their table gets a text, if they chase ballots," the Democratic pollster said, "that strategy will work."

Still, Democrats know it isn't easy to get voters who were used to voting in person to become consistent mail-in voters, even after a November 2020 presidential election that saw historic turnout.

"Does that translate to the middle of 2021 in a special election?" Trujillo asked. "It remains to be seen."

He said there is not enough history to predict the future.

"We've only had one election to study. It's not enough data to know if we can create a permanent Democratic behemoth, that will take at least three elections," Trujillo said. "If you're team Newsom, that is the Rubik's Cube you need to solve."

Meanwhile, the pollster said the 2021 election is much different than 2003, when Arnold Schwarzenegger's candidacy created a circus everyone was talking about.

"It was laughable and that's what made it so exciting," the source said. "Everybody was talking about it nonstop."

Democrats who spoke with Newsweek said the Newsom doomsayers "are over-alarmed," but are serving the important purpose of getting his campaign into gear.

Regardless of who wins the recall election, though, the next primary is already on the horizon in June 2022. Some Democrats are arguing that Newsom doesn't have to win impressively, he just has to win.

"He should save some money for 2022," the pollster said. "Do you need to win by 30 or can you win by 7? You don't have to win by 30, you just have to defeat the recall."