Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Bermuda Triangle of politics: The mysterious disappearances of the recall in politics, history and academy

There is an assumption – one that I share – that the Wisconsin recalls will serve as the start of a new role for the recall in electoral government. It fits in with some of the major trends of representative democracy – namely that engaged (and enraged) voters insist on taking an increasingly active role in policy making and refuse to accept the “trustee” form of government. However, you can also take a more cautious view on the longer term prospects for the recall. The recall frequently disappears from view, and it could happen again. From the very beginning, I’ve found that the recall is the Bermuda Triangle of politics.

My introduction to the academic side of the recall was an article (that is not available online) by Lawrence Sych. If I remember correctly, one of the footnotes noted the dearth of writing on the recall. Of course, once I was finishing up my thesis, this book came out on the recall in 1997. However, as far as I can tell, despite a few very big newsworthy recalls in the ensuing years, neither of these authors ever wrote about the recall again, nor did their most immediate predecessor.

That seems to be a theme with the recall, both in academy and in politics.  The coverage of the subject, the long term trends, and even the basic history of the device quickly disappears from public view. Unsurprisingly, we know little about the use of the recall and its effects.

Take one of the big stats – before Wisconsin there have been 20 (Edit -- actually 21) state legislative recalls in U.S. History. This statistic dates to this article I wrote in 2009. If you look at the other scholars on the subject, you will find that they are missing all of the Oregon recalls. I only found out about the Oregon ones because an editor looked into it. Might there be others? It’s possible. In the Arizona, the early reports of the Russell Pearce recall couldn't say for sure whether the state ever had a legislative recall.

There are a number of other strange stats. Some places cite Michigan as adopting the recall in 1908. You would think this guy would have mentioned it in his contemporary article on the subject for the Michigan Law Review. The closest I've seen to a definitive account of the recall cites 1913 as the year for Michigan.

The same page claims that 3/4 of all recalls have been used at the city council or school board level. What does that mean? Are mayors and county officials excluded from that stat? They can’t possibly be using that to mean all local officials, right? Because then the statistics should be closer to 99%.

That’s the statistics. We also have big historical questions about the subject. Why did the recall disappear from view for over a century? I go back to 1631 with the recall, and it was definitely in the Articles of Confederation. The inclusion of the recall was a big topic for debate in the Ratification Conventions, but it wasn’t included by Madison in the proposed Amendments. After a couple of attempts to adopt the device, it was lost to headquarters until the end of the nineteenth century. Why? The idea of Instruction for Senators was certainly popular. So why was the recall forgotten?

When did it reappear? Thomas Cronin mentions the recall returned in some small cities before LA adopted it in 1903, but we don’t know the names of any of those municipalities (I asked him in an email, but understandably, he didn’t have the 20+ year information at his disposal).

Then there is the harder question for us. Why did the recall fall out of favor? On the political front, the recall has burned brightly during its adoption in the Progressive Era. But then, it disappeared from the scene. Between 1929 and 1976, the only state to add the recall was Alaska (in its new constitution). From 1935 to 1971 there appears to be no record of a state legislative recall. Why? We can throw out guesses (good economic climates, one-party domination, power of local political organizations) but that’s not a solid answer. And why did it return and stay active over the last 30 years (14 of the 21 state legislative recalls have been in that time, plus California Governor, Miami-Dade, San Francisco and two Omaha Mayors)? Was it technology or something else?

There’s also the judiciary, perhaps the most controversial of the recall issues. The recall of judicial decisions played a large role in the 1912 election. But that subject disappeared off the map after an adverse Colorado Supreme Court ruling in 1930. Why did no one bring it back? And why have Judges so uniformly escaped the threat of the recall (In case you were wondering, California Chief Justice Rose Bird was not recalled – she was voted out in a mandatory retention election)?

As Michigan, Arizona, South Carolina and even Australia, Canada and the UK are all showing, the recall is definitely enjoying another moment in the sun. But as history has shown, that doesn’t mean it will stay there.

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