Friday, May 4, 2012

Why Did Wisconsin Adopt the Recall: An Examination of "The History of the Recall in Wisconsin"

When you think of the states that are the big users of the recall (I'll put the others as Michigan, California, Oregon, Colorado), Wisconsin stands out for two reasons.

1. It is the only one of those states not to also enact the initiative. 2. It was the last state of that group of states to adopt the recall. This leads to a basic question – why was Wisconsin’s adoption of the recall different than other states?

Until very recently, the history of Wisconsin’s adoption of the recall has been effectively buried. I read through most of the 1926 issues of both the Milwaukee Sentinel and Milwaukee Journal and found very little of substance that would explain why Wisconsin passed the recall in 1926 (I did find this great article on Harry Houdini life and death, though). A search on Wisconsin Magazine of History was fruitless as was the History of Wisconsin Volume V by Paul Glad, which covers the 20s)

I was going to write something about the history with what little I had, but fortunately last month, Christian Schneider, a fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, published an extremely useful piece that provides critical insight into the adoption of the recall. If you want to place WPRI on the political map, it is a “free market think tank” and politically leans to the right (Schneider clearly opposes the Walker recall). In this post, I’m going to disagree with a number of Schneider’s conclusions, but make no mistake, it is the new starting point for any examination of the state’s adoption of the recall.

The place to start when examining Wisconsin’s recall history is the 1901-1914 years. (Fortunately, here we have a useful book – The History of Wisconsin Volume IV by John Buenker) The years 1910-1914 is when most of the early states adopted the recall. Wisconsin, by all reason, should have been among them. The Progressives, under the leadership of Senator Robert La Follette had been entrenched in power for more than a decade. They finally made their attempt to adopt direct democracy starting in 1910 (a banner year for progressives’ nation-wide).

In the 1910 legislative session, Wisconsin approved the Direct Democracy provisions. The initiative and the referendum sailed through, but the recall hit a bump. Just like in California, the recall against judges proved a hurdle (we’ll discuss that below). But it was only a temporary one. The legislature still easily approved the entire recall provision (which is substantively somewhat different than Wisconsin’s current law – you can read Schneider’s article for those details).

If it was in another state, it may have sailed through right then. But Wisconsin’s law on ballot propositions is different than many states (though similar to NY). They had to be passed by two separate legislative sessions. So instead of 1912, another great year for progressives, it got on the ballot in 1914.

By the time it got to the ballot, the backlash against progressives in Wisconsin had begun. The progressive failed to unite on a Republican primary candidate and split their vote (the state was Republican-dominated, so the primary was the big vote). Due to the removal of a ranked choice voting law -- they called it a Mary Ann provision (a favorite of La Follette) -- the conservative was victorious in the gubernatorial race (though the progressives won the Senate primary). Furthermore on the national level, there was the expected mid-term backlash. President Woodrow Wilson’s supporters got drubbed.

The result was that all 10 ballot proposals that would reshape the state, including the initiative, referendum and recall, went down in flames. Not one of the 10 proposals got 40% of the vote.

The initiative was apparently finished. But the recall went on to live another day.

The progressives came back to power in 1922. And here is where we get lost. The legislature passed the recall in that session and then again in 1924-26 session. 1924 was a good year for conservative Republicans (and with arguably the most conservative Democrat to ever head the ticket). However, it was a great year for progressives in Wisconsin. Bob La Follette ran for president and won the state (and 4.8 million votes nationwide). His race undoubtedly helped the party keep the state progressive for the 1924 session.

I didn’t see much about the adoption of the recall (though perhaps I have to look through 1923, 1924 and 1925 to find coverage). The death of La Follette in June 1925 may have given the recall further push, but there was little discussion of the recall until the end of 1926, when there are a few critical articles from both the Journal and Sentinel, and some negative writing from the state bar about a negative impact on judges.

The vote itself was held on November. The recall was not the big ballot initiative that year – the same day Wisconsin had a vote on whether to allow the sale of beer (which passed easily). For the recall, the first coverage suggested it going down to defeat. And the end result saw a close vote – it only got 50.6% of the vote. Fortunately for recall backers, 1926 was also a good backlash year against Coolidge – the Democrats did well, and presumably so did progressives.

Now for some critical thoughts: Schneider has two key points to argue a central thesis that the recall was not supposed to impact governors.

One is that the debate surrounding the recall appears to be completely about Judges, which leads Schneider to the position that the recall might have been about the removal of Judges. From what I saw, the focus was definitely on judges. But a look at other states and the national recall battles in the past -- something that, in his defense, Schneider would not have seen – shows that the fight over the judicial recall was a key battleground for recall opponents.

The California debates of 1911 were heavily focused on judges. Similarly, the national debates on the recall, between William Howard Taft and his surrogates and Theodore Roosevelt were all focused on judges. The recall of judges (and judicial decisions) was clearly the most controversial part of the recall, opposed by even some of the ardent supporters of the recall. It is no surprise, both from a theoretical and a tactical level, that it would be the key focus of complaint. It was the weak point of the recall, and opponents went after it with fervor. Perhaps fittingly, the most notable recalls of judges in US history happened in Wisconsin.

Therefore, I would not read much into the focus on the judiciary. It was simply an easy electoral tactic and probably not an indication of why the recall was adopted.

The second point is that at the time, Governors only served two years terms. Senators served four, and (like today) Assembly members served two. The law was changed in 1967 to give Governors a four year term. Schenieder argues that with the “no recalls in the first year of office” limit, Governors would not have really been a target. I disagree.

By 1926, Wisconsin had the ability to see numerous recall campaigns, including those against a Governor (North Dakota), three state legislators (California), the mayors of LA, Seattle and Atlanta. They knew what they were getting into, and they knew how the recall operated.

Note that the North Dakota’s gubernatorial recall of 1921 – the most famous recall in the country – took place against an official who was elected to a two year term.

Many other states had two year terms for governors and legislators. There is no exception for them in the rules. It is true that no other states has such a long grace period -- California had a 3 month grace period, North Dakota doesn’t appear to have a grace period, but does ban recalls if there will be a race for the position within the year -- but that doesn’t prove much. There is a lot of variety in recall laws, and the reason for the variety is frequently unknown.  As this blog has repeatedly noted this year, legislative bodies rarely consider the recall when drafting election law, resulting in strange and barely considered problems. I’m not sure why the law was written with a one year delay, but it would be a great stretch to say that it effectively exempts most major offices in the state.

Schneider also notes that the current recalls in Wisconsin have all been against Senators, elected to four year terms, and none have been launched against current Assembly members, elected to two year terms. I don’t think this proves anything. The reason the Senate was targeted was because by winning three Senate seats the Democrats would be able to take control over the chamber (we’ve seen this same scenario play out in the past). I’m sure that if the Assembly was separated by a few votes, we would see Assembly members facing the recall today.

Schneider does point out some other useful facts, including the differences between the 1914 and 1926 recall bills. Note that the 1914 law had a registered voter signature requirement, rather than the much looser eligible voter one from 1926. Again, there is no listed reason for this change. These types of facts seem to suggest a lack of thought in the drafting process, which is no surprise.

One big question that is unanswered is the one I set out on top: Why the recall? Why didn't Wisconsin adopt the seemingly more powerful Initiative?

What can we take away from this history? Outside of round of applause for Schneider for a real contribution to our understanding of the recall's history, I think we are left with some unsurprising open-ended questions. There are no great generalizations that can be made about the adoption of the recall. That’s just how history works.


  1. Partisans often claim to have special insight into what "the Founders" thought and intended when they created legislation. We should be dubious about the relevance and accuracy of those assertions.

    An article like this one; timely, balanced, and thoughtful, is a refreshing antidote to those self-serving pronouncements.

  2. Thanks -- appreciate that someone noticed.