How Political Recalls Work

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.