Recall still more a threat than a weapon

July 16, 2008
    With disgruntled citizens threatening to recall Gov. Bobby Jindal and several state legislators for their previous positions on legislative pay raises, Louisiana is hitting a growing nationwide trend.
    Studies have shown that recalls of elected officials are now more popular than ever. However, the recall proponents shouldn't get too carried away with the idea of actually throwing anyone out of office. The history of the recall shows another basic fact -- it's not easy to get one on the ballot, especially in Louisiana.
    Most people have only recently become familiar with the recall, primarily due to its successful use against California Gov. Gray Davis in 2003. In fact, it's widely available throughout the United States.
    Since it was revived in its modern incarnation by Los Angeles progressives in 1903, some 60 percent of American cities and municipalities have adopted the recall for local officials. Eighteen states allow it for state officials (though it cannot be used against a U.S. senator or congressman).
    Even though many of these states adopted it back in the early 1900s, there appears to have been a significant growth in the use of the recall over the last 25 years. A numbers of factors are probably responsible, including a slide in voter turnout combined with technological innovations that have created an effective and efficient signature-gathering industry, thereby making it easier than ever to get a recall on the ballot.
    For the Louisiana recall backers, there is an additional fact that could help propel a recall. Voters are most likely to recall and remove an elected official when they feel betrayed by a single vote -- and pay raises clearly qualify.
    For example, in 1971, Idaho became the first state to recall a state legislator in over half a century, kicking out a state senator and representative because they voted to approve a salary increase for the state Legislature.
    Yet, despite this growth spurt, and even when there's a good issue to base a campaign on, recalls are still more of a threat than an actual weapon. They have a slim chance of getting on the ballot.
    For example, in the 96 years that California has had the recall, governors were threatened with a recall 31 times before such an effort finally got enough signatures to get on the ballot. And California has a much easier process to recall state officials than other states. Only one other state, North Dakota, has ever recalled a governor, and that was way back in 1921.
    The reason is not that citizens love their governors and other elected officials. It is simply incredibly difficult to get enough signatures.
    The Gray Davis recall is particularly instructive. It got on the ballot due to a number of particular circumstances, including opponents willing to dedicate millions of dollars to the effort and the fact that California is a prodigious user of initiatives, which helped create a very well-developed signature-gathering industry in the state.
    Just as important were two relatively hidden reasons. One is that California's governors face the lowest signature-gathering requirement of any elected officials in the country. Signatures equaling only 12 percent of votes cast in the previous election are needed to qualify the initiative.
    The other is that the 2002 election had the lowest proportional voter turnout in the state's history. Therefore, to get the Davis recall on the ballot, its backers needed the signatures of only fewer than 5 percent of the state's eligible voters.
    In contrast, Louisiana has arguably the hardest signature-gathering requirements of any state in the country, as one-third of the registered voters in each parish need to sign before getting a recall qualified.
    Even though California has a population 8 1/2 times the size of Louisiana's, the Davis recall actually required fewer signatures -- fewer than 900,000 -- to get on the ballot. A Jindal recall is estimated to need well over 900,000 signatures to qualify. And of course, nobody has coughed up the millions of dollars that would be necessary to pay for the signature gatherers.
    The recall of Jindal is a threat that has already borne fruit -- Jindal has reversed his position and vetoed the pay raises.
    But due to the cost and enormous difficulty of signature gathering, he and his fellow legislators probably never had to worry too much about the recall actually getting on the ballot.
    Even if he were removed, he could take heart from a distant predecessor, Lynn Frazier, the North Dakota governor who was the first head of a state to be recalled. Frazier was elected to the U.S. Senate less than two years later.
    Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College. He has written extensively on the recall. He can be reached at