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Total Recall

In the wake of California's attempt to recall Governor Gray Davis, it seems likely this tactic will be tried in other states.

The purported sins of Gray Davis are not unique to him. Plenty of other governors have been blamed this year for enormous budget deficits, even if none could rival California's $38 billion shortfall. And many have been accused of masking the size and scope of budget problems during their reelection campaigns. It would be ridiculous to assert that Davis is the only politician who deserves to be called "arrogant" or derided for his heavy fundraising. What's more, examples abound of executives who have lost popularity by bungling through a crisis, as Davis did with California's electricity deregulation fiasco.

Indeed, many pundits have argued that because Davis' failings are so common, he doesn't deserve the special ignominy of a recall election on October 7. But such considerations of fairness beg a more important question: If so many politicians make the kinds of mistakes that Davis has, why aren't more of them facing recalls?

No governor has been recalled since 1921, but recall attempts are more common than you might think. Only 18 states allow recalls of state officials, but fully double that number allow recalls of local officials. Sixty-one percent of U.S. localities can hold recall elections--a higher percentage than allow initiatives or referenda. According to surveys by the International City/County Management Association, in the five-year period ending in 2001, recall elections or mayors or city council members took place in nearly 10 percent of U.S. cities. "Before people sneer at California, they should look at their own city charter and see how often their own guys have been recalled," says Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside.

Given the worldwide publicity garnered by the California recall, interest in pursuing this particular tactic against disliked politicians will only increase. M. Dane Waters, who runs the Initiative and Referendum Institute in Northern Virginia, says that he normally receives only about one phone call a month asking about recall procedures. Since the attacks on Davis began, however, Waters says, "we've received literally hundreds of calls from activists who have suddenly awakened to the recall device. People are saying, 'Hey, maybe this is available and I should think of using it.'"

With California Democrats already threatening to run a recall campaign against any Republican who might win the election to replace Davis, which will also be held October 7, recalls are more likely than not to become a regular blood sport in the state. Recalls, like so many other policy ideas first tried out in California, may then spread into the nation's political mainstream. Ballot initiatives were out of fashion until the passage of Proposition 13, an anti-property tax measure approved by California voters in 1978, demonstrated their power and renewed their popularity. The recall of Davis could have a similar effect. "I think that it is possible, if this one succeeds, that politicians and parties may feel this is fair game and it could become a regular part of the process," says election expert Dan Lowenstein, of the UCLA law school.

The hurdles for placing a recall of a statewide official on the ballot are generally much higher in states other than California, requiring a larger percentage of voters in the state to sign onto the idea. Still, threatened recalls are likely to become much more common. And the mere threat may cow some officials into avoiding unpopular decisions, such as raising taxes. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for instance, ran a column in July warning Governor Jim Doyle that he should start feeling nervous about a potential recall, given his veto of a property-tax limitation bill. (Milwaukee voters will have the chance to recall state Senator Gary George on September 16.) "In the past, you could do something unpopular at the beginning of your term in hopes that memories would decay and there would be perspective by the end of your term," says Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC, Berkeley. "Now what we have because of the recall is more of a permanent campaign. The threat of a recall is very powerful, and in policy debates you can keep the heat on a governor."


Recalls of delegates were allowed under the pre-1789 Articles of Confederation, but the first recall law of the modern era was introduced in Los Angeles in 1903. Oregon took up the idea five years later, and it spread to about a dozen states over the next few years, championed by progressives who saw it as a tool for citizens to wrest control from banks, railroads, mining companies and other interests they saw as having a stranglehold on state capitols. Most of the state recall laws date back to the early part of the 20th century, although Minnesota, New Jersey and Rhode Island passed theirs during the 1990s.

Ironically, the first statewide officials to be recalled were progressives themselves. North Dakota Governor Lynn Frazier, along with the state attorney general and agriculture commissioner, was the subject of a recall election in 1921. Under their leadership, the state had founded a bank and a grain silo business as a way of helping North Dakota farmers. Republicans who considered these operations to be socialist led the recalls. They were successful, but there was not much lingering political damage. Frazier was elected to the first of three U.S. Senate terms a year later, and the state of North Dakota has remained in the banking and silo businesses to this day. The only other governor who faced a scheduled recall election was Evan Mecham of Arizona, until the legislature saved voters the trouble by impeaching him in 1987.

At the local level, the success rate for recall elections is less than one-third. Most of the municipal recalls have taken place in jurisdictions with populations under 25,000, where practically anyone with a grievance or a grudge can gather the requisite few signatures. In 1959, Little Rock voters recalled the segregationist majority from the school board after its members had resisted federal pressure to allow nine black children to enter Central High School. Over the past quarter century, there have been recall elections in Cleveland, Los Angeles, Omaha and Colorado Springs. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein-- who many California Democrats hoped would run to replace Davis--turned back a recall attempt 20 years ago when she was the mayor of San Francisco.

Most of the 18 recall states have more stringent requirements than California. That state demands petition signatures equal to 12 percent of the registered voters who participated in the previous election for the office in question. Most states require twice as many signatures (25 percent); Kansas mandates 40 percent. California is not unique in allowing for recalls for any reason whatsoever, but half a dozen states require specific grounds, such as malfeasance, corruption or lack of fitness. Georgia, Minnesota and Washington State subject such charges to a form of legal review before a recall can go forward. The states vary in terms of how often they will allow recalls to occur, how much time petitioners have to gather signatures (as few as 60 days in four states) and whether there must be waiting periods for a time after, or leading up to, a regularly scheduled election.

Because of the legal hurdles, recalls have been rare. Over the past hundred years, there have been fewer than two dozen recall elections involving state officials, including legislators. Even after Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards was indicted on federal racketeering charges, a recall effort fell 200,000 signatures short in 1984. Louisiana requires a higher number of signatures than California, even though its population is only one-seventh the size. "There's a reason why it's been 80 years since it's been successful," says Tim Eyman, who has run several successful anti-tax initiative campaigns in Washington over the last several years. "The hurdle you have to clear for signatures is just tremendously high." Even in California, recalls have been a tough sell. There had been 31 attempts at recalling California governors prior to this year, including a 1968 campaign against Ronald Reagan that gathered more than 550,000 signatures. All failed to make it onto the ballot. But, regardless of whether Davis is tossed out of office, this recall is likely to have what political scientists call a demonstration effect.

Admittedly, the circumstances have to be right. You have to have a governor who just rubs hundreds of thousands of people the wrong way, as Davis does. You have to have someone with deep pockets to fund a signature-gathering campaign. (Congressman Darrell Issa put up $1.7 million of his own money to jump-start the Davis recall process.) California does make the process easier than most states, both in terms of its lighter legal requirements and the fact that it has such an active initiatives industry set up to help hopeful petitioners along their way. All of these factors, though, can be replicated elsewhere--maybe not every year, but certainly in less than 82 years. "This is a consultant's dream," says Cain, "to be able to run a campaign in the off season and generate business."


We are living, after all, in a time of "slightly unhinged partisanship," in the words of University of Kansas political scientist Burdett Loomis. The nation is split almost down the middle politically, which is why the two major parties exploit their every advantage in an almost Hobbesian fight for power. Consider, for example, the legal wrangling over the 2000 presidential election results in Florida. Or the current efforts by Republicans in Colorado and Texas to redraw congressional maps to create more districts to the GOP's advantage. Or Gray Davis' own $10 million ad campaign last year against former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan in the GOP primary, helping to deny the nomination of the candidate he least wanted to face in November--part of a growing trend of candidates interfering in the other party's primary. Formerly extreme and extraordinary political and legal tactics are being used with increasing regularity. There's little reason to think that recalls will be an exception.

It's possible that some state legislators, after watching the circus in California, with its many uncertainties about when and how to call the recall election, will want to tighten up recall laws. After a Kansas judge threw out a recall petition against three Kaw Valley school board members last November because "the law needs clarity," some state legislators talked about clearing up some of the confusion about the law's intent. Waters, of the I&R Institute, warns that legislative "tinkering with the recall device will lead to additional restrictions, making it more difficult to use." If that is the case, there may be a backlash. Voters may decide they like having the recall available. It's a means of keeping capitol elites in line. Michigan state Representative Charles LaSata has been trying for several years to overhaul the state's recall laws to require petitioners to come up with signatures equal to 100 percent of the number of people who participated in the last election, plus one. His bill is routinely derided as an "incumbent protection act," or worse.

The lack of trust implied by recall attempts is in keeping with the spirit behind voters' imposing term limits on legislators and supporting initiatives that cap state taxes or spending. The "recent popularity [of recalls] coincides with a rise in political cynicism, or distrust of government institutions and their elected leaders," Central Michigan University political scientist Lawrence Sych wrote in a 1996 Comparative State Politics article. Certainly much of movie actor Arnold Schwarzenegger's rhetoric in announcing his candidacy in August was based on a sense that politics-as-usual could not be trusted and that Sacramento needed an outsider such as him to clean things up.

Loomis says that the recall was meant as a tool for getting rid of particularly egregious offenders who refused to leave office on their own legs, but in California it's currently being used for partisan political reasons. "You end up with a politics that is continually contentious, and there's almost no time to sit down and deliberate your way out of a difficult situation," he says. "Rather than having an election and saying, 'Okay, for the next two years or four years, this is the way it's going to be,' you politicize everything: We will redistrict because we can, we will impeach because we can, we will recall because we can."

If California voters put Schwarzenegger or any other Republican atop the throne of a state where Democrats control both houses of the legislature and every other statewide office, that will be proof enough of the efficacy of the recall as a political tool. "It puts it into the category of a more routine political technique," says Lowenstein, the UCLA law professor. "My concern is that it will feed into this trend away from civility."

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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