Why are recalls more common today? They work

Sunday, June 1, 2008
    The June recall of state Sen. Jeff Denham, R-Atwater, seems to be sputtering to an end. Even the recall’s most important backer, outgoing Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, has said he’s abandoning the effort. Denham will likely survive the vote, but the ease of getting the recall onto the ballot shows that California politics might be entering a new phase, one in which recalls play a prominent role in partisan wrangling.
    The recall’s imminent failure might be found in the nakedly political motives behind it. Generally, recalls undertaken for no other reason than to switch a seat from one party to another rarely work. With a few notable exceptions, there must be a substantive reason to vote against a candidate. Voters must feel betrayed by the elected official to want to toss him or her out. Denham has realized this, and used it in his campaign to keep his job.
    Regardless, recalls are being used more often and against higher-level officials than ever before. 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 have faced recall votes.
    Nationwide, the trend is also growing. From 1923 to 1970, only one state official faced a recall. Since 1970, there has been a steady stream of recalls, including several prominent legislators in the Midwest and the removal of the mayor of Spokane, Wash.
    There are several reasons for the resurgence of what Los Angeles Times dubbed “the grand bounce” a century ago. One is the increased willingness of interest groups to play a direct role in the political process, spending millions on “issue ads.” California had the best example of this in 1994, when Senate Democratic leader David Roberti successfully fought off a recall backed by the gun lobby. Since Roberti was being forced out anyway due to term limits, the recall was simply designed to serve as a warning to other lawmakers and as a show of strength by a powerful interest group.
    Emerging communications technology has also played a role. Sophisticated computers have made it significantly easier to organize and run 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, rumor campaigns and directed e-mails have become a potent tool.
    The simple math of lower voter turnout has made recalls more successful. Outside an upwards blip in 2004 and 2006, voter turnout has dropped precipitously in the last several decades. For example, the recall of Gov. Davis was made attractive by the fact that the 2002 California gubernatorial election drew only 50 percent of registered voters to the polls. 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 voting means it takes fewer signatures to launch a recall.
    Lower voter turnout is another reason we should expect more recalls in the future. While Denham’s recall vote is taking place on the same day as a regular vote, generally recalls votes are stand-alone elections. Therefore voters have to be both aware of the special election and care enough to vote. Unsurprisingly, voters who come out to cast their ballots are often highly motivated. 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, they can use this lower turnout to their advantage.
    The best reason to expect more recalls is because they are effective. Of the eight state-level recalls prior to Denham, five were successful. A similar pattern is evident in other recalls throughout the United States, where more than 50 percent result in the removal of the official.
    Recalls have not been a particularly effective when used for purely partisan reasons. And Don Perata might have miscalculated in launching the recall of Denham. But interest groups have already discovered the benefits of the recall. It’s possible that political leaders will get the hang of it.
    Spivak is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College, Staten Island, N.Y.