Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Recall Fever: US Conference of Mayors tin-eared campaign against the recall

After the Miami-Dade and Omaha recalls, the US Conference of Mayors has responded with a limited war on the recall. On Tuesday, they are kicking off an education campaign by putting out a documentary called Recall Fever: Stop the Madness

Whatever the merits of their argument, the Conference does itself no favors with its passive challenge against the recall. Specifically, it notes that the recall has targeted local leaders “who have done nothing illegal” and that voters are “expressing their feelings -- often times in destructive ways.”  This seems to be a fruitless attempt to shift the blame to the voters for "expressing their feelings" rather than political grievances. Even worse, by stressing the illegality red herring, the Conference ignores the fact that recalls are, at least in most states and localities, inherently political devices, intentionally not subject to judicial review for motives. Most recalls are not based around illegal action, and a study of the history of the recall shows that it was not intended to flush out corruption. Voters have shown they like recalls and this line of attack ignores that basic fact.

This is a shame, as the mayors should be calling attention to the cost of recalls. As I’ve mentioned before, arguing that a recall is expensive does not work that well as a campaign defense. However, it is pretty much the only time that the recall’s price tag comes up. The mayors are right to shine a spotlight on cost, and try to present a reasoned explanation for why voters should limit the recall in order to save money. But the Mayors have to walk a tightrope – which their initial press release did not do – and show that they are looking out for the voters best interest, and not seeking to protect themselves and limit options for deploying the recall.

I actually have an article coming out this week in American City and County that makes several suggestions about what municipal officials could do to limit the cost of recalls (one of which would clearly curtail recalls).The two options that I think should be considered are raising the signature requirement and making a same day recall and replacement vote (which I believe would help elected officials). The signature requirement can be raised in a number of different ways, such as by counting a percentage of total registered voters rather than voter turnout in the last election. Since the mayoral vote is usually in non-presidential year, this would increase the amount of signatures needed. The small signature requirement is a problem-- Akron needed less than 4,000 signatures to get a recall on the ballot.

The mayors can make a broad-based attack on the entire philosophy surrounding the political nature of the recall, and try to limit the recall, as some states such as Minnesota. There are plenty of arguments against the recall. But I don't think the Conference wants to go down that rabbit hole.

One other point: The release notes that recalls are on the rise, and blames the challenging economic times. Though Ballotpedia may not be the most trusted name in news, undoubtedly they are right -- recalls are on the rise. And for a variety of reasons, local officials are more likely to face a recall that state ones. The economic downturn and high unemployment numbers play a large role in the growth of voter anger, which fuels recalls (and incumbent defeats in general elections). But by limiting the discussion of the growth of the recall to the last few years, the mayors are ignoring a longer term trend and failing to recognize the more important reasons for the growth of the recall, namely technological innovation. The recall is not going away.  

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