Monday, August 8, 2011

What to expect when you’re expecting recalls: A guide to state legislative recalls

Edit Note: Since publication, I've found out about a 1981 state legislative recall, pushing the pre-2011 amount of recalls from 20 to 21. I've changed the number to reflect that figure.

While the political arguments surrounding tomorrow’s Wisconsin recall elections are well covered elsewhere, I’d like to draw attention to the many issues and history surrounding the use of the recall – both in Wisconsin and the rest of the nation. Due to the unprecedented circumstances in Wisconsin, we shouldn’t expect the usual recall phenomena like low voter turnout and blow victories. Yet such recall norms are worth considering even in the context of Wisconsin, for the insight they bear on how recalls are used.

As others have stated, the last few years has seen a recall boomlet (though the way they are citing Ballotpedia as the source shows they probably don’t understand how a wiki works). Most credit/blame the recession, but recall use has probably been growing for at least the last thirty years (14 of the 21 state legislative recalls have been since 1981). I cite technological changes as a major driver in the recalls growth.

Let’s get onto our key talking points:

History in the making

How historic are Wisconsin recall elections? Since 1908 (when Oregon became the first state to adopt the recall for state level officials), there have been 21 state legislative recall elections in the entire country. In this term, Wisconsin will have nine recalls in a little over a month.

Previously, the maximum recalls in one legislative session were three in California in 1995. Michigan in 1983 (taxes) and Idaho in 1971 (pay raise) both had two at once.

Will voters shy away from switching party control of the Senate? Nope! If the Democrats win at least three seats and lose none, they will have gained a majority in the Senate. There have been three recalls (four or five if you want to count California in 1995 multiple times) that could have switched the legislature (Michigan 1983, California 1995, Wisconsin 1996). All of them succeeded.

Recalls are frequently successful – 13 of the 21 (now 22 thanks to the July 19 Wisconsin race) recalls have resulted in the official being kicked out of office, as have both of the governors. There are no hard numbers for others recalls, but it does seem to be over 50%.

Democratic State Senator Jim Holperin is the first state legislator to face two recalls during his state legislative career. (Others have faced multiple recalls, but never as a state legislator).

Turn in, turn on, turnout:

Historically, recalls have been all about the fabled ground game. Few people come out to vote in recalls (or other special elections), as there is usually only one race on the ballot and you have to know about and care about the race (which is one of the reasons that the recall proponents have an advantage in the recall). In 1994, the three California Assembly recalls saw 20 to 25% turnout, with similar numbers in Michigan in 1983. The last Wisconsin recall, against Gary George in 2003, saw 8% turnout.

However, there are exceptions – Gray Davis’ recall had a much higher turnout than his 2002 reelection race. In a different type of special election, Scott Brown’s widely followed Senatorial election win in Massachusetts had a very high turnout.  And, as’ Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel points out, the turnout for the recall primaries in July was much higher than would normally be expected. The normal rules of the road for recalls will probably not play here -- we should expect a high turnout.


The Wisconsin recalls promise to be close. Due to the unusual nature – and massive press coverage -- of these recalls, we can expect both parties to get their supporters to the polls. But don’t be surprised if we see some blowouts – Blowouts are the norm in a recall vote. The winner of recall elections generally triumph with over 60% of the vote.

The future for Wisconsin and the rest of the country:

The recall has historically been a below the radar weapon (I’ll have a post on its “Bermuda Triangle” nature tomorrow), so it is possible that the recall will once again disappear from view. But there is every reason to believe the recall is ready for its close-up.

There is already another recall race this year -- Arizona’s Senate Majority Leader Russell Pearce in November. Michigan is facing multiple recall petitioning challenges, both against state legislators and the Governor. Petitions have already been handed in against one state Rep, with the verification process yet to be completed.

In Wisconsin, the threats are out there. You have to serve one year before a recall, so the Senators elected in 2010 will all be coming due for a recall battle starting in January, as will Governor Walker. The Assembly members will also have the same problem, but perhaps tactical considerations may make them less likely to be a focus (they only serve two years terms, which are half over. The money and effort may be better spent on those serving another three years).

The Walker recall poses its own challenges. There have been only two Govenors to ever face a recall (North Dakota's Lynn Frazier in 1921, California's Gray Davis in 2003, plus Arizona's Evan Meacham would have faced one if he wasn't impeached). Wisconsin has a relatively strict signature requirement. It requires a high number of signatures in a very compressed timeframe – only 60 days (only four states limit the gathering period to 60 days).  This could make a recall of Walker quite difficult

Ain’t Misbehaving:

Despite the widespread belief that the recall is only suppose to be used for criminal conduct and malfeseance, only four of the recalls were based on conduct. The rest were on policy votes and politics.

Recall Defenses: 
Do voters care if the recall is perceived to be instigated by a political party or by an interest group? Check here for some thought.

Campaign finance:
Wisconsin has an unusual campaign finance law for the recall – no limit on donations. Wisconsin isn't the only state to have a very different campaign finance law for recalls, as Washington State shows. 

Will there be lawyers?
You better believe there will be lawyers.

And finally, some consolation for the electoral losers. North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier was the first Governor to be recalled back in 1921. He was elected to the first of the three US Senate terms 18 months later.

1 comment:

  1. How refreshing to read something that is actually informative! And it is very well written, too. Thanks!