Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
In the end, it wasn’t even close. After 18 months of signature-collecting to get the 1.5 million needed to trigger a recall election in California, it took less than an hour for incumbent Gov. Gavin Newsom to be declared the winner.
With around 65% of the ballots counted as of Tuesday night, “no” on the question of whether to recall the sitting Democratic governor was ahead by a 30-point margin.
Newsom, who didn’t hold a watch party or election night celebration, was pragmatic in victory, saying the result showed Californians said “yes to science, we said yes to vaccines, we said yes to ending this pandemic… by rejecting the division, by rejecting the cynicism.”
The cynicism Newsom was referring to was the widespread effort to push baseless election fraud conspiracies about the outcome even before Election Day arrived.
Central to this was Larry Elder, the leading GOP candidate running to replace Newsom, who said last week he would win despite unspecified voting “shenanigans.” Hours before voting closed, Elder’s campaign website even promoted a baseless conspiracy that suggested the election had already been stolen.
Elder’s claims were given more prominence when former President Donald Trump weighed in to the debate on Monday.
“Does anybody really believe the California Recall Election isn’t rigged? Millions and millions of Mail-In Ballots will make this just another giant Election Scam, no different, but less blatant, than the 2020 Presidential Election Scam!” the former president said in a statement.
But for all his divisive rhetoric leading up to the election, Elder, who did host a victory party on Tuesday night, attempted to stop all talk of a stolen election by admitting he lost.
"Let's be gracious in defeat," Elder told his supporters, before adding: "We may have lost the battle, but we are going to win the war,” a reference to his plan to run again against Newsom next year when the Democratic governor will seek a second term.
But Elder’s open admission of defeat and calls for his supporters to be “gracious” fell on deaf ears among the millions of people who have spent the last 10 months being convinced—by a mixture of right-wing media, conspiracy theorists, and GOP election officials—that democracy in the United States is broken.
On Twitter and Facebook, hundreds of accounts made baseless accusations that the result was rigged, including a number of verified accounts.
Right-wing commentator Michelle Malkin told her 2 million Twitter followers that Elder should “continue to lead against COVID tyranny, anti-American/anti-white multiculti madness, crime run amok and election fraud.”
Actress and Trump supporter Maggie VandenBerghe tweeted to her 130,000 followers: “California rigged their election for Gavin Newsom — what a shocker,” before adding: “I don’t know how many times I need to say this but — elections aren’t real.”
Another Twitter account claims Newsom had done a deal with the devil in order to win, citing the 66.6% of ballots that voted “no.”
Ron Watkins, the QAnon facilitator who was one of the key players in promoting the election fraud narrative during the 2020 presidential election, held a poll for his 420,000 followers, asking them if they “felt” the recall election had been rigged.
Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the 16,000 people who voted agreed with him that it had.
Across conspiracy channels on Telegram, users voiced their anger over their belief that the election was stolen.
Lin Wood, a former member of Trump’s post-election legal team and one of the biggest QAnon influencers, told his 815,000 followers: “Wake Up, America. This is not rocket science. A rigged election is a rigged election.”
Jordan Sather, another QAnon influencer claimed: “The Newsom Recall election may be even more rigged than the 2020 presidential election, and that’s sayin’ somethin’.”
Echoing comments he made hours before the election when he blasted Elder and Trump for pushing these conspiracies, Newsom told reporters after his victory that the damage done by Trump and his allies will last for a long time.
“Just in the last few days, the former president put out, saying this election was rigged. Democracy is not a football. You don't throw it around ... we may have defeated Trump, but Trumpism is not dead in this country,” Newsom said.
Trump’s embrace of the “stolen election” narrative led to the bogus audit in Maricopa County in Arizona, is being operated by a company with no previous election experience and was run by a man who had shared election fraud conspiracies on social media. It has still yet to conclude.
It has also led GOP lawmakers in several other states to push for their own forensic election audits, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election. In Pennsylvania, a group of Republican senators want to collect personal information on every registered voter, as well as a trove of communications between state and county election officials.