Tuesday, November 1, 2011

What to expect when you're expecting a recall -- Michigan State Rep edition

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.


On November 8th, Michigan state Representative Paul Scott, the chair of the House Education Committee, will be facing a recall vote. This will be the 32th state legislative recall election in US history, and the 11th this year alone (on the same day, the Arizona Senate Leader Russell Pearce will be facing a recall).

Scott was one of at least 20 Michigan legislators to face a recall challenge, and so far he is the only to get on the ballot. The primary backers of the recall were the Michigan Education Association, the teacher's union, in retaliation for Scott's backing on anti-collective bargaining measures. Scott's recall only got to the ballot after numerous legal challenges, resulting in a Michigan Supreme Court decision effectively ordering it go on. Scott also failed to push the recall to next year's primary -- which would have undoubtedly help him (as it would have been the same day as the Republican presidential primary, boosting Republican turnout).

This boom in recalls, which this year also includes the largest municipality in US history to hold a mayoral recall, has been credited/blamed on the recession, but the recall has been growing for at least the last thirty years. Only seven of the 32 legislative recalls took place before 1981. I cite the technological changes as a major reason for the growth in the recall.

With that being said, here are the key talking points, facts and figures to understand about the recall:

Fourth time around:
Scott is the fourth Michigan legislator to face a recall. The first two were Senators David Serotkin and Phil Mastin in 1983 over a tax hike issue. Both lost their seats, resulting in a rare switch in control over the legislature (that has happened two other times).

The third recall was House Speaker Andy Dillon in 2008, the second legislative leader to face a recall. Dillon easily triumphed. His recall was held on a primary day.

Come on, let's go:
Recalls are about turnout. Historically, few people come out to vote in recalls or other special elections (you have to know about the recall and want to show up). In 1983, the two Michigan Senate recalls saw 20-25% turnout, as did the three California Assembly recalls of 1994. A Wisconsin Senate recall in 2003 saw 8% turnout.

Recent high profile recalls saw much higher turnout -- Gray Davis' recall saw more voters come out than in his reelection race. The Wisconsin recalls also saw some high numbers.

However, the Dillon recall highlights a different type of recall -- one held the same day as a regularly scheduled election. The advantage to recall proponents is lost -- people don't necessarily need to be told to show up. Dillon and California state Senator both faced primary day recalls in 2008. Both won handily.

Scott is a little different. His recall is on a regularly scheduled election day, but in a true off-year election. We'll see what that means for turnout on Tuesday.

Running up the Score:
Though Wisconsin saw some nail-biters, most recalls can qualify as blowouts -- the winner of recall elections generally triumph with over 60% of the vote.

Burned rate:
Historically, the big hurdle to the recall is getting on the ballot. Once it's there, elected officials are frequently kicked out of office. Of the 21 state legislators to face a recall before this year, 13 were kicked out. However, the numbers are improving in recent years. 2008 saw two survivors. And Wisconsin hit barely above the Mendoza line with an anemic 2 for 9. So we now stand at 15-30.

On the state-wide level, the recall has been rare but successful. Two Governors have faced a recall (California's Gray Davis in 2003, North Dakota's Lynn Frazier in 1921), both were removed. In 1921, the North Dakota Attorney General and Commissioner of Agriculture were also removed with a recall.

Interest Groups:
Scott's recall can be directly tied to a union. Does it make a difference if an interest group launches the recall or if instead it is done by a political party? History seems to suggest that an interest group recall is less likely to succeed than one launched by a political party. The Wisconsin recalls, which are widely credited to union groups, knocked out 2 of 6 Republicans (the Democratic recalls were a little different, though all 3 failed). Here's are some other examples of failed interest groups recalls (and successful party-led ones).

The Future in Michigan:
Michigan's recall law appears to give a lot of leeway to election officials and judges to delay recalls. Despite being a "political recall" state, officials can apparently regularly demand changes to the recall petition, holding up the recall. Hence, none of the other recalls launched against legislators have gotten on the ballot as of yet.

One very weird, and still unexplained, instance was the recall against Rep. Nancy Jenkins. The recall petitioner claimed to have gotten into a car accident right before he was to turn in the petitions. However, there are numerous questions about his claims.

At the moment, there are numerous recall petitions attempts against legislators from both parties, as well as against the Governor and the Attorney General.

Money, that's what I want:
The Scott recall has already seen over $250,000 in campaign fundraising by both sides. According to reports, Scott has a 2-1 advantage in available funds (though I'm not sure what that means when you are dealing with the new independent expenditure regime). Unlike Wisconsin, the amount of money raised and spent will not raise eyebrows.



Michigan and the recall:
The recall is very popular in the state -- in the last 20 years, 340 recalls have been filed in Berrien County alone. Michigan has had the recall for some time. According to some reports, it was tied for the first state to adopt the recall for state-level officials (1908), but for what I've seen they actually adopted it a few years later (1913).

Two votes, but a long delay:
If the recall is successful, the new Senator will be chosen at the next regularly scheduled election day, which I gather should be the primary in February. Here's the law. It sounds like the state doesn't know what would happen if the Governor were recalled.

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