Friday, Nov. 5, 2010
RECALL: FOR MAYOR, THE ODDS AREN’T GREAT
By JOSHUA SPIVAK
Facing a well funded recall campaign, Mayor Carlos Alvarez has good reason to worry. In addition to the fact that he could be forced to face the voters at a time of serious voter anger at elected officials, the nature of the recall operates against its target. Once on the ballot, recalls have a good chance of succeeding.
Most recalls fail, primarily because they never get anywhere near the ballot. Getting enough signatures to qualify for the ballot is an expensive and time-consuming process. Most jurisdictions also require a large number of signatures to qualify — usually around 20-25 percent of either eligible voters or the amount of votes cast for that position in the last election (a much lower number).
The Miami-Dade mayoral recall seems to have easily surmounted those problems. Thanks to Norman Braman, proponents possessed ample funds to pay for signature gathering, legal fees and all the other expenses that usually doom a recall. And the signature requirement was very low, an estimated 52,000 valid signatures, or about 4 percent of registered voters.
With the proponents saying they have 90,000 signatures in hand, it seems likely that the recall will be going to the voters. Once there, the recall has a very good chance of success. There has not been a full study on the recall, but it appears that among state-level 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, California’s Gray Davis in 2003 and North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier in 1921. Both were removed. There have been at least 20 state legislators who have faced a recall; 13 of those officials were tossed out.
Part of the explanation for this success is the basic fact that a recall getting on the ballot usually means the elected official is running into a buzzsaw of voter anger against his or her policies or behavior. But that is not the most important reason. Recall votes are generally stand-alone special elections. Voters have to both be 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.
The average voter, who usually comes out to vote on a whole slate worth of candidates, is more likely to skip special elections. 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. There are counter-examples, most prominently the circus-like recall of Gray Davis, where turnout was higher than at his election, but generally the turnout is heavily depressed.
When recalls take place on a nonspecial election basis, i.e. the same day as a regularly scheduled vote, candidates seem to fare better. The two most recent state legislative recalls, one in California, the other in Michigan, both of which took place in 2008, illustrate this point. Both were scheduled for the same day as a primary, and both candidates survived.
Despite these grim facts, Alvarez does have cards to play.
So far, the recall campaign is uniquely tied to one backer. Most recalls that succeed have garnered a broad base of support — recall proponents manage to make the campaign one of an incompetent, corrupt or uncaring official versus the voters.
However, if the campaign is one elected official versus one rich opponent, the narrative may change in the mayor’s favor. Changing the narrative can help even in extreme cases. Recently, the mayor of Ridgefield, N.J., survived a recall, despite the fact that he was facing federal corruption charges. The fact that it was led by his Republican opponents could not have helped their campaign.
For Mayor Alvarez, the odds are not great. Once on the ballot, voters are not afraid to toss out the target. The biggest hurdle to his removal may have already been surmounted.
Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York.