The political scandal surrounding Flint, Michigan’s poisoned water debacle is showing no signs of slowing down. Prosecutors are now at least talking about filing manslaughter charges against appointed officials. For elected officials, especially Governor Rick Snyder, the revelations have come with a heavy political cost. There have been at least 10 recall petitions filed against Snyder recently, and three have been approved (though one of them is about a school reform law). There is clearly a big push to punish Snyder. And yet, at least as far as the recall goes, he probably doesn’t have much to worry about.
This may seem surprising. Over the last 13 years, two Governors, a Lieutenant Governor and 20 state legislators have faced recall votes over far less headline-grabbing events. Two of those legislators were in Michigan; one of them was the Speaker of the House. The recall is also extremely popular in Michigan. The state consistently ranks among the yearly leaders in recall -- in 2015, there were 19 local races that made the ballot or saw a resignation in the face of a recall, which is second in total to California (which had 20). But these facts must contend with a series of complex problems that voters face.
One is the sheer amount of signatures that petitioners would need to gather to kick out Snyder. In Wisconsin in 2012, 540,208 valid signatures gathered in 60 days were needed to force a recall of Governor Scott Walker. In California, a state almost four times the size of Michigan, they needed 897,158 signatures gathered over the course of 160 days to get on the ballot. A recall of Snyder will require 789,133 in 60 days.
The reason for the stark difference in proportional signature totals between California and Michigan is a quirk in the law. California’s Governor has one of the lowest recall signature requirements of any state (12 percent of voter turnout in the last election), while Michigan has a much higher requirement, though fairly requirement of the signatures totaling 25 percent of voter turnout in the last election for the office.
Wisconsin may give petitioners some hope, but they shouldn’t get to excited. Wisconsin also has a quirk in its law that makes a recall much easier to get on the ballot. In Michigan all petition signers must be registered voters in order to count to the 800K signatures. Wisconsin requires the signers only “eligible voters.” This is obviously a significantly larger pool to draw from. It is also easier to get through the signature verification process, because there is less likelihood that the signatures will be thrown in a cross-check with voter lists. As a general rule of thumb in Michigan, 15% of the signatures are found to be invalid and thrown out. In a big recall, where plenty of people are combing through the signatures with a fine-tooth comb, that number is likely to be higher.
The recall backers will likely also run into a serious problem of who will actually put up the dough for the effort. While recalls can be one of the last true independent citizen-backed movements, anything requiring close to a million verified signatures is going to take tons of money. Collecting signatures takes plenty of money; so does fighting attempts to kill the recall in court. The Wisconsin recalls saw labor groups put up serious money; the California recall saw Congressman Darrell Issa pledge over a million dollars to pay for signature collection. That money is just needed to get a recall on the ballot. An election fight will take tens of millions of dollars as well – the Scott Walker recall campaign costs over $125 million.
There have been labor-focused efforts to remove Snyder before – one claimed to have collect 500,000 signatures before failing. But it may be a tough sell for unions to go after Snyder following the expensive and failed campaign against Walker. School reform efforts have played a role in Jefferson County, Colorado recall efforts this year. But the amount of money needed to remove Snyder is orders of magnitude greater than the million dollars spent kicking out three obscure school board members.
Another problem is time. For one, the recall has to be started this year. Michigan’s law prevents any recall from being filed during the Governor’s first or last year in office, so a clock has started ticking. There is also the fact that Snyder is term limited and in his second and final term. There is less value to removing him than ever before.
But all of these issues pale when compared to the biggest problem -- who replaces Snyder. There’s no vote for a replacement. Thanks to a 2012 change in the law signed by Snyder, if the Governor is kicked out, his running mate, in this case Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, steps up into the role. There has recently been a filing against Calley that was rejected. But that won’t solve the problem. Even if you would remove the LG, the new Governor would be the Secretary of State, followed by the Attorney General. All of these officials are Republicans.
Beyond all of these questions, there is an added political dimension to the recall. If a recall is held on Election Day, will this affect the presidential race? It is very likely that the Democratic presidential candidate will not want this on the ballot in a crucial must-win state for the party and may take efforts to stop the movement.
Rick Snyder’s has plenty of problems in Michigan and it seems that the Flint story is going to get worse. But Michigan’s law and the different barriers to using the recall may mean that he can take comfort in the fact that he is probably not facing the voters again.