Earlier this month, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Assembly took the first step toward preventing voters from forcing recall elections against elected officials not accused of any legal or ethical wrongdoing. While this move may appear self-serving — in 2011 and 2012, three Republican State Senators were removed from office and Gov. Scott Walker (R) had to face voters midway through his term — it raises questions about whether the current recall system several states have is beyond repair.” The Wisconsin Assembly has the right idea: mid-term recalls of public officials without cause hurt America’s republican democracy.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 19 states currently allow recall of state officials. Several others allow it also for local officeholders — and most recalls have historically been done at the local level.
It’s important to understand there are two kinds of recall systems. “For cause” recalls require that an elected official do something ethically or legally inappropriate. In eight states, specific grounds ranging from actual indictment to general malfeasance, misfeasance or violation of the oath of office must be demonstrated for any recall efforts. But the more problematic “political” recalls, which are permitted in Wisconsin and other states, allow removal with out any reason, as long as enough petitioners force a vote and the majority agrees.
The recent Wisconsin recalls of Republican state senators were fueled by public outrage over their support for anti-collective bargaining “budget repair” bill. The successful recalls in September of two Democratic state Senators in Colorado were fueled by anger among gun-rights supporters over their votes in favor of restrictions on arms and ammunition. In both cases, legislators elected to a set term in office were removed partly through those terms in the immediate aftermath of controversial votes.
Joshua Spivak, a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York and author of the Recall Elections Blog, told ThinkProgress that one of the big philosophical debates about republican democracy has long been the question of whether elected officials are “trustees we are electing for their knowledge and wisdom” or “a representative who is the best person to put out their to advance our point of view.” The recall, he observes, “is a thumb on the scale of the representative model.”
But Edmund Burke famously said “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Among the chief aims of the framers of the American political system was to provide a series of filters for the factionalism of majorities and minorities who are riles up about a particular issue. By granting two-year terms for U.S. Representatives and staggered six-year terms for U.S. Senators, for instance, instead of a system of more direct democracy, they aimed to combat what political historian Sidney Milkis calls the “temptation to flatter the whims and passions of the majority.” When some suggested an option for midterm recall of U.S. Senators, Alexander Hamilton dismissed the idea as one that would “render the senator a slave to all the capricious humors among the people” and make him “perpetually feel himself in such a state of vassalage and dependence, that he never can posses that firmness which is necessary to the discharge of his great duty to the Union.”
Shaun Bowler, a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, told ThinkProgress that “there may be very specific cases here in California” of legislators avoiding tough votes after seeing other elected officials recalled, “because right wing groups have threatened GOP politicians with recall if they vote a particular way.” Bowler says it is impossible to be sure what effect they have on legislatures. But it’s not like recalls have redeeming features that make them worth the risk.
One problem with recalls is financial. Since most states hold special elections for recalls, cash strapped governments have to spend six-figure, seven-figure, and even eight-figure sums on holding extra elections. The Colorado recalls cost about $500,000 in taxpayer dollars. The Walker recall election cost Wisconsin about $13.5 million and the Davis recall cost California between $53 and 66 million. With states already cutting education, Medicaid benefits, mental health funding, food stamps, and even election administration, these unexpected expenses for state and local governments can come at the expense of other priorities. While Spivak notes, major statewide recalls can bring a boost the economy (“People coming in, buying coffee, renting hotel rooms,” and paying for political ads) governments can hardly rely on this to produce enough revenue to cover all of the costs for every special election.
Another difficulty with most recalls is voter turnout. Stanford University Professor of Political Science Bruce E. Cain told ThinkProgress that “when you hold these special elections, turnout drives the outcome.” And special elections of any kind tend to have lower turnout than regular November votes.
Spivak says that while turnout in the Wisconsin and California gubernatorial recalls was fairly high, recall turnout is usually quite low — often just 25 percent of normal election day turnout. While this problem is also endemic to other types of special elections, the problem here is that the people most motivated to show up for a recall election are typically the same as were motivated to request the recall to begin with. While in a typical election there are many things on the ballot, it is harder to turn people out to just vote to keep their mayor or state senator — Spivak says this creates a “mover’s bias” for the recall. Some other countries, he notes, require a certain turnout threshold for recalls to succeed. “If you don’t get enough turnout, it doesn’t count.” But as this sort of rule is uncommon in American recall election laws, an energized minority has a distinct advantage over even an incumbent who enjoys the support of a satisfied majority. Because of this systematic bias, recalls are more-often-than-not successful — while in general elections, incumbents win the vast majority of the time.
There are legitimate cases where the recall can be a vital tool — especially situations where elected officials have committed a crime, transgressed ethically, or broken trust with the voters by switching parties. Some recall laws require such a cause before the recall can be launched. In San Diego, for example, voters might launched a recall earlier this year against then-Mayor Bob Filner (D) after numerous women came forward with stories of sexual harassment and worse — though Filner’s eventual resignation saved the city the time, money, and bruises of such an effort. Voters in Toronto understandably are frustrated that they have no such option to recall Mayor Rob Ford before his term is up next year. And Republicans who voted for Kentucky State Rep. Wade Hurt and Democrats who backed Louisiana State Sen. Rick Ward had legitimate gripes after each flipped parties mid-term. But these could all be covered by “for-cause” recall — and do not require the “because we feel like it” option. Conservative columnist George Will wrote in 2003, as Republicans prepared to recall Gov. Gray Davis (D-CA), “California is not a Circuit City store. A democracy with periodic elections should not have, regarding elected officials, a liberal exchange policy — any time, for any reason — for voters experiencing ‘buyer’s remorse.’” To avoid sharing Circuit City’s fate, it and other states might want to re-examine whether recalls-without-cause are really healthy for the American political system.