California election officials are spending $16 million in a four-week ad blitz to educate people about voting in the recall that could remove Gov. Gavin Newsom, a campaign that's officially nonpartisan but could benefit the first-term Democrat as he pushes for high turnout.
Through billboards, radio and digital ads, television spots and more, the campaign is designed to make sure voters know about the recall and understand how to cast a ballot. Every registered voter received a ballot in the mail, but many people might be confused or unaware of the race because it's happening in late summer in an off-election year.
Secretary of State Shirley Weber has said her goal is to increase voter participation across all political affiliations.
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“My goal is 100% voting, and why? Because I think everyone has a voice that needs to be heard," Weber said on a recent call with reporters.
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 Sept. 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.