Dillon recall vote sends message to all lawmakers

October 2, 2008
    With the speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives facing the first recall of a Michigan state legislator since 1983, many are questioning the point of such a vote.
    It has been widely disparaged both because of its timing -- it will take place on Election Day, when voters could decide to replace Andy Dillon, a Democrat from Redford Township -- and its effect, as the recall would only remove Dillon from office for two months.
    Yet, there is a logic to the recall. It may now be symbolic, but it could have value in the future: It provides a real threat to legislators.
    This may not have been the original motivation of its backers.
    After all, they had hoped to have the recall take place months earlier. Like many other recalls, such as the famed recalls of California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and of Michigan senators in 1983, the Dillon effort was undertaken as a clear attempt to alter the political dynamic of a state.
    But even this was in a sense symbolic. Even if Dillon were removed, it would not switch party control in the Legislature. Democrats would remain firmly in power.
    So the value here is in the threat.
    Frequently, recall threats are enough to get elected officials, never the bravest lot, to back off on unpopular policy initiatives. Witness Louisiana this year, where Gov. Bobby Jindal and legislative leaders received recall threats over a legislative pay raise. Even though Louisiana has one of the toughest recall laws, the leaders quickly reversed course. A similar hope may also be behind the ongoing attempt by a prison guards union to recall California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
    The Dillon recall goes an extra step further. Dillon isn't really the one being threatened. His opponents have shown they can accomplish the hardest part of a recall -- getting it on the ballot. Based on the sparse history of recalls, once it gets to a vote, it has about a 50% chance of succeeding. And if the recall backers can place one on the ballot now against Dillon, perhaps they can place one against other elected officials during the next term. They have good reason to try -- it may be easier to defeat an incumbent through the recall instead of a regularly scheduled general election.
    That's because, typically, voter turnout is dramatically lower for a recall. The voters have to be aware of the special election and care enough to come out to vote just for the one race. Those who turn out are often highly motivated by animus to the elected official.
    Looking back at the 1983 Michigan recalls, you can see the advantage to recall backers. The vote turnout was a little more than half that for the regular election of 1982. In other cases, the turnout can approach a quarter of the regular turnout.
    Recall proponents should be wary, though. It can backfire. Just this June, California Democrats attempted to recall a Republican state senator, Jeff Denham, for his votes against the budget. The recall was seen as a transparent attempt to "steal" a seat, and gain a blocking two-thirds majority in the Senate. The vote, which took place on the same day as a primary, was easily turned back. The Democratic leader lost momentum and respect for his role in the recall.
    In other cases, recalls have arguably proved a benefit to the targeted official. In 1983, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein defeated a recall attempt over her pro-gun control position with 83% of the vote. Her victory proved her strength as an elected official. And Lynn Frazier, the North Dakota governor who was the first head of a state to be recalled back in 1921, was kicked out of office, but he managed to be elected to the U.S. Senate less than two years later.
    Recalls are powerful, if infrequently, used weapons. The value is not just in removing an elected official; it is also in the threat. The Dillon recall, which would seem to have very little effect due to its timing, serves this role. Recall proponents are trying to put the other legislators on notice -- they may be seeing a recall in their future.
    JOSHUA SPIVAK, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York.