A short history of recall campaigns

JUNE 12, 2009
    After 23 years in office, Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic is facing a new type of insurgent fight — he must overcome a recall.
    For Akron citizens, the recall may appear to be a unique event, one caused by a confluence of circumstances, including the economic downturn and personality clashes. However, a look across the country shows the Akron is following a path that many other localities have recently traveled. Recalls are being used more often and against higher-level officials than ever before.
    While the most prominent example was the California gubernatorial recall of 2003, there have been a large number of recall votes in recent years. In 2008, two state legislators, a state senator in California and the speaker of the Michigan legislature, survived recall votes. And plenty of other officials have been threatened. The Kansas City mayor just narrowly avoided a recall last month, and Portland's mayor is still being threatened with one.
    In California, six Republican state legislators have been threatened with a recall for voting for the state's budget. Last year in Louisiana, the governor and the leaders of the legislature were all threatened with recalls after they approved a legislative pay hike. It's even spread overseas. Great Britain is considering allowing recalls of members of parliament after a widely publicized scandal over housing allowances.
    These prominent uses of the recall are a major change from the past. Though originally adopted, or in some views revived, by Los Angeles in 1903, the recall has been ignored for much of its modern existence. For example, from 1923 to 1970, only one state legislator across the entire country was recalled and removed. But since 1970, there has been a steady stream of recalls, including several prominent legislators in the Midwest, an attempt against then-San Francisco mayor (and current U.S. senator) Dianne Feinstein in 1983, and the removal of the mayor of Spokane, Wash., in 2005.
    What explains this resurgence? One is that emerging communications technology has made running a signature-gathering campaign easier than ever. As we've seen with initiatives, it is significantly easier to organize and run the signature-gathering efforts that are needed to get a recall on the ballot. California's initiative process has allowed campaign consultants to hone their signature-gathering machines (consisting of paid signature gatherers). And since the Internet has become ubiquitous, rumor campaigns and directed e-mails have become a potent tool.
    The simple math of lower voter turnout has also helped recalls become more likely. In general, with a few blips, voter turnout has dropped precipitously over the past several decades. The number of signatures it takes to qualify a recall for the ballot is directly tied to the number of voters who participated in the previous election. So a decrease in turnout means it takes a smaller portion of signatures from the overall electorate to qualify a recall.
    However, this new nationwide ease in getting recalls on the ballot is not particularly relevant to Akron. The city has an extremely low signature requirement, one that would rarely present a barrier to getting a recall qualified.
    At the same time, there is a big tactical reason in favor of the recall, one that could be in play in Akron — it is much easier than defeating someone up for re-election in a regularly scheduled election.
    Recall votes are generally stand-alone special elections. Voters have to be both aware of the recall vote and care enough to come out to cast a ballot for one race. Unsurprisingly, voters who come out to cast their ballots are often the most highly motivated, which certainly defines people who are intent on removing an elected official.
    Regular voters, who are ready to vote on a whole slate worth of candidates, are more likely to skip the election. For example, in 1995, three California Assembly members faced recalls. Each of these well-publicized elections drew from 25 percent to 35 percent of registered voters, well below the turnout for a general election.
    If an interest group is confident that its members will go to the polls, it can use this lower turnout to its advantage.
    While there is as yet no full survey on the efficacy of the recall, it appears that among the higher ranked officials, over half of recalls that get on the ballot result in the removal of the officials. Only two governors have faced a recall in the nation's history. Both were removed. Thirteen of the 20 state legislators who have faced a recall across the country have been tossed. And of those survivors, the most recent two from 2008 had the recall vote take place on the same day as a primary, when more voters were at the polls.
    The current recall fight will allow Akron voters to have another vote on Mayor Plusquellic's long rule. The recall may seem to be a peculiar way of deciding the mayor's fate, but Akron is not alone. As we see, voters in many localities are increasingly choosing to use the recall to express their discontent with elected officials.
    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 City.