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Trend Toward Recall Efforts on the Rise for Cities, States

Wednesday, December 1, 2010
    While a potential recall election for Mayor Jim Suttle would engender much debate, it could give Omaha a new distinction — it would be the largest city in America to recall and remove two mayors. It also may be on the cutting edge of a new trend. Recalls have exploded in growth in recent years. The reason for this growth also should concern Suttle’s supporters — recalls are frequently successful.
    Omaha is no stranger to this fact, as many voters recall the 1987 ouster of Mayor Mike Boyle. In the ensuing 24 years, the recall has become more popular than ever.
    Most people are familiar with the circus-like atmosphere surrounding the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis, only the second governor in the country to face a recall vote. However, there have been plenty of others.
    For example, before 1994, California had not gotten a recall on the ballot against a state legislator in 79 years. Since then, there have been five. And just this year, Miami looks set to vote on recalling its mayor in January.
    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. 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 also has 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.
    For local elections, this could be particularly easy. For example, Miami requires only 4 percent of total registered voters to sign this petition. In Omaha, you need 20 percent of the turnout for the most recent mayoral election, which is not going to be a high number. In Akron, Ohio, where the mayor beat back a recall last year, the recall proponents needed only a few thousand signatures.
    The other explanation for the resurgence is that recalls frequently work. There is no nationwide study on their effectiveness, but they frequently succeed in knocking off incumbents. There have been 20 or so recall elections for state legislators in the country’s history. In 13 of those, the official was recalled.
    The reason for this result is that 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. Not surprisingly, 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.
    When recalls take place on a non-special-election basis, i.e., the same day as a regularly scheduled vote, candidates seem to have a better chance of survival. 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.
    None of this means that Suttle is doomed. While recall proponents have latched on to a popular issue for recalls — taxes — it is not always successful. The best recall issue is one that rides on a feeling of betrayal. Whether it is because of a corruption scandal or a switched vote — as in the case of a Wisconsin state senator who was booted out for switching his vote to support a tax to build a baseball stadium — betrayal is the most powerful argument for a recall.
    At least Suttle can take some comfort in a few other historical facts. Being the subject of a recall doesn’t end a career — it could be a good jumping-off point. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein survived a recall when she was mayor of San Francisco, as did Congressman Dennis Kuchinch when he was mayor of Cleveland.
    Even losing a recall doesn’t mean it’s the end. North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier, the first governor ever to be recalled in 1921, went on to win three terms in the U.S. Senate.
    The writer, of Staten Island, N.Y., is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He is the founder of the website

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