California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger addresses the press the day after winning the office in a recall election in October 2003.

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How Political Recalls Work

No, it isn't just your imagination. The steady stream of news reports and protests that have dominated the airwaves lately makes it clear that Americans have recall fever. Consider this: In 2011 and 2012, there were 11 recall elections for state legislators, mostly in Wisconsin. To give you some perspective, there have only been 36 recall elections for state legislators total since the first was held in 1913 [source: NCSL]. In 2010, 57 mayors across America faced recall elections -- more than twice the amount of mayoral recalls in 2009 [source: Holeywell].

Recalls have become a popular tool of grassroots activism in an age of extreme political divisiveness. The message is clear: if you don't like the mayor, the governor or the chairman of the local school board, you don't have to wait for the next election. Kick the bums out!

A political recall is the process by which a public official is removed from office before his or her term is over. The recall process is designed to provide a check on the sovereign power of elected officials. If officials fail to represent the will of their constituency, then the voters have the power to take back their vote through a recall election.

Citizens can't recall federally elected officials like members of the U.S. Congress or the President. But at least 29 states have rules on the books for the recall of elected local officials like mayors, school board members and county commissioners, and 19 states allow for the recall of state elected officials like state legislators and governors [source: National Conference of State Legislators].

Every state that allows recalls has its own set of rules governing the recall process. Before a politician can be yanked from office, there are petitions to be signed, signatures to be certified and special elections to be organized. But before we get into the nitty-gritty details of the recall process, let's take a look at the colorful history of political recalls in the United States.

History of Political Recalls

Until recently, recalls were a rarely used political weapon. In fact, the very first recall election wasn't held until 1904, when voters recalled Los Angeles city councilman James Davenport over his unpopular support of a slaughterhouse within city limits [source: Holeywell]. Since that first recall, states have slowly added provisions to their constitutions allowing for the recall of local, municipal and sometimes state elected official. The most recent states to legalize recalls were New Jersey in 1993 and Minnesota in 1996.

Of the roughly 5,000 recall elections held in the past century, the overwhelming majority have targeted local officials, and only half of those recalls have resulted in the person's replacement or removal from office [source: Nichols]. Many more recall petitions have been filed over the years, but failed to collect enough signatures to trigger an actual election. Only two governors have ever been successfully recalled, the most recent being California Governor Gray Davis in 2003. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker narrowly avoided becoming the third by surviving a tough recall election on June 5, 2012.

The Founding Fathers debated the inclusion of a federal recall provision in the Constitution, but ultimately decided against it. Instead, members of Congress can be removed by expulsion, a formal vote in which two-thirds of the Senate or House of Representatives agrees to give the legislator the boot. Only 20 Congressmen have been expelled by their legislative colleagues, and 17 of those occurred during the Civil War over accusations of "disloyalty to the Union" [source: Maskell].

Impeachment is a legal process -- not a legislative or political one -- in which a president, vice president or governor is removed from office. The House of Representatives brings the charges, or indictment, against the official and the Senate acts as the jury in the trial, requiring a two-thirds majority for conviction. President Bill Clinton, for example, was impeached by the House, but acquitted by the Senate, and therefore remained in office.

The last few years, especially 2011 and 2012, have brought an explosion of recalls, particularly on the state level. Nine out of the 10 legislative recall elections in 2011 were held in Wisconsin, where Governor Scott Walker clashed with unions over a controversial bill that would shrink the collective bargaining rights and benefits of state employees [source: The New York Times]. Many Wisconsin voters were enraged at Republican leadership for backing the bill, but some reserved their ire for some Democratic legislators who fled the state to delay a vote. Ultimately, six Republican state senators and three Democrats faced recall elections in 2011, but only two senators -- both Republicans -- lost their seats. Governor Walker himself and four other Wisconsin legislators faced recalls in 2012.

Next we'll look at how political recalls are launched and outline the process for unseating an elected official.

A sign touting the recall of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker hangs on a statue in front of the state capitol building in Madison in March 2011, amid protests against Walker's bill denying collective bargaining rights to public workers.

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The Recall Process

Each state writes its own recall rules, but there are generally four steps to political recalls:

  1. Apply for permission to circulate a recall petition.
  2. Gather the required number of signatures within the time limit.
  3. Have signatures verified and approved by state election officials.
  4. Hold the recall election [source: National Conference of State Legislators].

In the first step, an individual or group applies for permission to circulate a recall petition. Only eight states require specific grounds for a recall, like neglect of duty, misuse of office, or criminal conviction [source: National Conference of State Legislators]. In most states, the grounds for a recall can be strictly political in nature. In Wisconsin, voters disagreed with the governor's position on unions and collective bargaining. In the small town of Johnstown, Colo., residents disagreed with the mayor's plan to change the downtown street parking from diagonal to parallel [source: Cochran].

If state election officials approve the application, then the recall organizers must collect a lot of signatures in a short amount of time. Again, each state has its own rules, but most of the signature requirements are based on recent voter turnout. In Wisconsin, for example, recall supporters must collect 25 percent of the total number of people who voted in the last election for that office. And they must do it in 60 days or less [source: Tate]. One of the reasons that recalls are most often used on the local level is that local elections have a much lower voter turnout, requiring a relatively small number of signatures to trigger a recall.

Once the petitions are submitted, state election officials must verify each and every signature. In Wisconsin, the state's Government Accountability Board (GAB) processed over 300,000 petition pages for the 2012 recall elections of the governor and four state legislators [source: GAB]. Each page was reviewed by two separate people and names were struck for illegible addresses, double entries and other problems. In the end, the GAB approved over 900,000 signatures for the recall petition against Governor Scott Walker, many more than the 540,208 required [source: The New York Times].

With the signatures approved, state officials schedule a recall election. Again, each state handles its recalls differently. Some states hold a simultaneous recall, in which voters answer two questions: 1) Do you think the official should be recalled; and 2) Who do you want to replace that official? If the majority of voters answer "yes" to the recall question, then the person who receives the most votes on the second question is the winner. In other states, the approval of the recall petition triggers a special recall election in which the recalled official runs against a single opponent. If more than one person wants to run, then a primary must be held. In four states, if a majority of voters say "yes" to a recall, then the official's post is rendered vacant or is filled by a temporary replacement until the next scheduled election [source: National Conference of State Legislators].

With the rash of recall elections recently, an important question remains: Do political recalls even work? We'll tackle that question on the next page.

Do Recalls Work?

Supporters of political recalls say that average citizens need to be able to check the power of elected officials. The sentiment is very much in line with the Tea Party movement or Occupy Wall Street -- grassroots efforts by average Americans who are passionate about promoting their political agenda. But critics decry the recent explosion of recalls as a symptom of our toxic political environment. Are modern recalls designed to unseat incompetent officials or are they only used to wage a costly nuisance campaign? It depends on whom you ask.

A 2011 issue of U.S. News and World Report asked two men to offer their opinions on the effectiveness of political recalls: Tom Cochran, the CEO of the United States Conference of Mayors; and Mike Tate, the Chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party and a long-time political activist.

Cochran, who is disappointed in the high number of recall attempts against American mayors, believes that many modern recalls are frivolous and fueled by political anger, not real issues. He argues that the high cost of recall elections -- hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars -- cannot be justified in an age of economic austerity [source: Cochran]. Democratic Party Chairman Tate agrees that recalls shouldn't be used lightly, but counters that recalls such as the one in Wisconsin are absolutely necessary to check the power of elected officials who are pursuing what he calls a "radical agenda" [source: Tate]

Officials who have been the unsuccessful targets of recall attempts argue that recalls distract public officials from their real work and force them into constant "campaign mode," defending their record, raising money for court challenges and fighting negative attack ads [source: Holeywell]. In preparation for his recall election, Governor Walker of Wisconsin raised over $12 million in 2011 and another $13.1 million in the first four months of 2012 [source: Associated Press]. One thing is for sure, if you want to derail, or at least distract from the agenda of an elected official, a recall campaign is a great way to do it [source: Holeywell].

For lots more information on political controversies and election law, explore the links on the next page.

Author's Note

This article couldn't have been timelier. As I'm writing it, Democratic candidates in Wisconsin are preparing for a primary contest to see who will run against Governor Scott Walker in his recall election. All eyes are on Wisconsin, as many see the Governor's recall attempt as a bellwether for the upcoming presidential election. Walker came to power with strong backing from the Tea Party, but an entirely different group of grassroots activists are now trying to wrest him and his legislative supporters from power. It's a fascinating period in American politics; one in which the traditional means of governance -- elected officials acting indirectly for the will of the people -- is shifting more toward direct political intervention. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? We'll have to answer that in a future article.

Related ArticlesSources
  • The Associated Press. "Wisconsin governor raises $13 million in recall." May 1, 2012 (May 1, 2012.) http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-501363_162-57424717/wisconsin-governor-raises-$13-million-in-recall/
  • Cochran, Tom. U.S. News and World Report. "Recall Elections Waste Public Funds and Cause Chaos." May 10, 2011 (May 1, 2012.) http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2011/05/10/recall-elections-waste-public-funds-and-cause-chaos
  • Holeywell, Ryan. Governing. "The Rise of the Recall Election." April 2011 (May 2, 2012.) http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/rise-recall-election.html
  • Maskell, Jack. Congressional Research Service. "Recall of Legislators and the Removal of Members of Congress from Office." Jan. 5, 2012 (May 1, 2012.) http://www.senate.gov/CRSReports/crs-publish.cfm?pid='0E%2C*PL%5B%3A%230%20%0A
  • National Conference of State Legislatures. "Recall of State Officials." March 14, 2012 (May 2, 2012.) http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/elections/recall-of-state-officials.aspx
  • The New York Times. "Times Topics: Scott Walker." March 30, 2012 (May 1, 2012.) http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/w/scott_k_walker/index.html?8qa
  • Nichols, Mike. Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. "As politics, the recalls working as planned." Jan. 21, 2012 (May 2, 2012.) http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/as-politics-the-recalls-working-as-planned-h03saur-137800788.html
  • State of Wisconsin Government Accountability Board. "About the Recall Webcam" (May 1, 2012.) http://gab.wi.gov/elections-voting/recall/webcam
  • Tate, Mike. U.S. News and World Report. "Recall Elections Enhance Democracy." May 10, 2011 (May 3, 2012.) http://www.usnews.com/opinion/articles/2011/05/10/recall-elections-enhance-democracy