DECEMBER 24, 2009
PUBLIC EJECT BUTTON RARE BUT INCREASING
By JOSHUA SPIVAK
The debate over whether to adopt a recall mechanism in NSW is almost guaranteed to involve overheated rhetoric on both sides.
For its supporters, the recall will allow righteous voters to clean house. Opponents will argue that it is opening the political process to anarchy and interest group politics.
But an honest look at the recall’s history in America shows that it is neither a cure-all nor doomsday device. Despite a recent boomlet in popularity, it remains a marginal weapon for political change.
The recall is very tempting. It answers a fundamental question of representative democracy — namely whether the official should act as a trustee and vote his own opinion, or perform as a delegate and vote according to the wishes of his constituency. But even though the power to recall elected representatives places a club in the hands of voters, it is not used that often, especially over straight policy matters.
Part of the reason for this limited use in the US is that federal officials, such as the President, US senators and congressional representatives are not subject to the recall. Only 18 states allow it for state-level officials, though 36 allow it for city and municipal officials.
Even the states that have it don’t use it with any real frequency. Since the recall was brought back at the state level in 1908, only two governors have ever faced a recall: one in North Dakota in 1921, and California in 2003. Both were kicked out of office.
Only about 20 state-level legislators have ever faced a recall, and 13 were removed. Thousands of recalls have undoubtedly been threaten against legislators in that time. But they don’t get to the ballot stage.
That being said, the recall has been growing in popularity in recent years. In the first 83 years after California established the recall, only three state-level elected officials faced a vote; all in the first three years after adoption. Since 1994, six officials, five legislators and the governor, have faced recall votes.
The explanation for the resurgence may say less about a polarised environment and more about a few technological and sociological developments. One reason is the increased willingness of interest groups to play a direct role in the political process, with interest groups spending millions on ‘‘issue ads’’.
Arguably more important, sophisticated computers have made it significantly easier to organise and run the campaigns necessary to collect signatures and 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, rumour campaigns and directed emails have become potent.
In California, voter behaviour also plays a significant role as lower turnouts make recalls more successful — the number of signatures needed for a recall there is directly tied to the number of votes cast in the previous election.
Even with all of these changes, recalls are still a rarity, especially at the policymaking state level. A look at which recalls succeed in kicking an official out of office and which fail may shine a light on why they are rare.
Corruption or direct violation of a law tops the list of attributes that make a recall likely to succeed. Many politicians who lost recall elections were removed under fire, such as the first two mayors recalled in this country, Los Angeles’ A.C. Harper in 1909 and Seattle’s Hiram Gill in 1911.
They are also more successful when based on a single issue, such as raising taxes, or when an interest group feels betrayed. For example, Wisconsin state senator George Petak was voted out of office in 1996 for switching his vote to support a tax to help build a new baseball stadium.
On the other hand, partisan attempts to remove an elected official mostly fall flat. They are occasionally successful, most notably two Michigan senators who were kicked out over tax increases and spending cuts in 1983, but they usually go down in flames.
The recall may be a powerful tool to punish politicians. But based on America’s experience, it is unlikely to be a transformative weapon. It is more likely to be threatened than actually used.
Joshua Spivak is a research fellow at Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College, New York.