OCTOBER 24, 2009
EVEN IF RECALL PASSES, OUSTING THE GOVERNOR WON’T BE EASY
by JOSHUA SPIVAK
With Rod Blagojevich gone, but not forgotten, Illinois legislators voted recently to give citizens a tool to remove future scandal-scarred governors — the recall. Earlier this month, the Illinois Senate voted to put on the ballot in November 2010 a constitutional amendment allowing for recall. If it passes, Illinois will adopt a mechanism for recalling governors seen as corrupt or incompetent.
There are, however, important differences between the Illinois recall and the recall in other states. For one, the Legislature wrote in the equivalent of a veto over its use. And, unlike in other states, the legislators excluded themselves from the law’s reach. This was a smart move from a tactical point of view. While governors rarely are recalled, legislators regularly have to deal with the threat.
Compared to the 18 other states that allow gubernatorial recalls, the proposed Illinois law is fairly liberal. It only requires signatures equal to 15 percent of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, one of the lowest standards in the country. And recall proponents would have up to 150 days to gather signatures, a longer time than in nearly every other state.
The modified legislative veto of the recall is a major quirk unique to Illinois. Ten senators and 20 representatives must sign an affidavit to allow the recall to go forward, with no more than half the signatures from one party. If voters approve the recall, Illinois will be the only state to give the Legislature a role in the process.
Despite these relatively liberal terms, the chance of a gubernatorial recall getting on the ballot is quite slim. In the 101 years since Oregon became the first state to allow recalls of statewide officials, there have been only two gubernatorial recalls, both of which were successful. North Dakota removed Gov. Lynn Frazier in 1921. Then, 82 years later, California Gov. Gray Davis was recalled.
The legislators’ refusal to include themselves in the recall law was unprecedented, but shrewd. No other state allows the recall just for one office. Historically, there haven’t been many state legislative recalls — only about 20 — but the pace has picked up in recent years. Since 1994, there have been eight legislative recalls. Just last year, there were two attempts, in California and Michigan.
Legislators are not the main target of recalls — mayors, city council, or school board members face far more threats. But legislators now must be aware that unpopular votes can cost them before election time. And they have good reason for this fear. A recall may be the best way to kick out an incumbent because a recall almost always has much lower turnout than a regular Election Day vote.
The proposed gubernatorial recall will give Illinois voters a tool to oust an unpopular governor. But that’s about all they’ll get. Anybody looking for a powerful weapon to use against lawmakers won’t find it here.
Joshua Spivak is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York City.
ALSO IN CHICAGO LAW BULLETIN
A limited recall tool
By Joshua Spivak
After the Rod Blagojevich scandal, Illinois legislators have decided to give voters a tool to remove future scandal-scarred governors — the recall. This recall is different than most others states. Even though there proponents would need hundreds of thousands of signatures, it is a fairly loose law. But there are important differences between the Illinois recall and other states that possess the device. One is the legislature wrote in the equivalent to a veto over its use. The other is actually more critical: Unlike other states the legislators specifically excluded themselves from the laws reach. From a tactical point of view, this was a smart move — while Governors or other state-wide officials are rarely recalled, legislators have to regularly deal with the threat.
Compared to the other 18 state that allows gubernatorial recalls, the proposed Illinois law is actually fairly liberal in its requirements. The law only requires signatures equal to 15% of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. This requirement is one of the lowest in the country, topped only by California’s 12%. Additionally, the amendment proposes that recall proponents would have up to 150 days to gather enough signatures to get on the ballot, which is a longer time period than nearly every other state. The one rather large quirk is the modified legislative veto of the recall. According to the law, 10 Senators and 20 representatives must sign an affidavit to allow the recall to go forward, with no more than half of the signatures coming from members of one party. While some states only allow the recall for a narrow range of gubernatorial misconduct creating a de facto judicial veto, Illinois will be the only state to give the legislature a role in the recall process. Adding this unusual feature, the legislature appears to be effectively limiting the recall to more serious matters, such as malfeasance, rather than general disgruntlement with the governor.
Despite these relatively liberal terms, the chance of a recall against a governor getting on the ballot is quite slim. They will still require hundreds of thousands of signatures. A look at the national picture shows the difficulty. In the 101 years since Oregon became the first state to allow recalls of state-level officials, there have been only two gubernatorial recalls, both of which resulted in a removal. North Dakota was the first to do it against Governor Lynn Frazier in 1921. The next one took place 82 years later, against California Governor Gray Davis.
The legislators refusal to include themselves in the recall law was unprecedented — no other state allows the recall just for one office — but shrewd. While recalls are rarely used against Governors (and cannot be used against federally elected officials), legislators are another matter. While there have not been too many state legislative recalls — at least 20 throughout the country — nearly all of them have been in recent years. Since 1994, there have been eight legislative recalls. Last year saw two legislators, one in California and the other the Speaker of the Michigan Assembly, survive recall votes.
While legislators are not the main target of recalls — local officials like mayors, city councils, or school boards face far more threats — they now have to be aware that unpopular votes can cost them before elect time. And they have good reason for this fear. A recall may be the best place to kick out an incumbent. A recall almost invariably has much lower turnout than a regular Election Day vote, generally between a quarter and a half as low. And those who turnout for such a vote are the most committed voters, such as the people who take the time to gather signatures to kick the official out of office. Thirteen of the 20 state legislative recalls have resulted in the official being removed. And the two who survived last year both benefited from timing — the recalls were held on the same day as the primary, guaranteeing a higher turnout from their less-motivated backers. Even if they survive, the legislator will get a nice shock to the system, and be more wary of a specific interest groups problem in the future.
The proposed gubernatorial recall will give Illinois voters a tool to oust an extremely unpopular Governor. But that’s about all they’ll get. Anybody looking for a powerful weapon to use against lawmakers won’t find it here. The legislature may have been willing to give the voters a way to remove a future corrupt governor, but they are not about to open themselves up to the full danger of the recall.
Joshua Spivak is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College