A recall isn’t all that easy — and certainly not fast

JANUARY 24, 2009
    The scandal surrounding Portland Mayor Sam Adams has quickly resulted in calls to toss him out of office via a recall election.
    While Portland last saw a mayoral recall on the ballot in 1932 — and has never removed a mayor from office — the city would be joining a growing trend across the country of both threatening and using the recall against local officials. And considering how voters elsewhere have weighed in on recall votes, if it actually gets onto the ballot, Adams probably should start searching the want ads.
    The recall is well-entrenched in modern American political life. Ever since Los Angeles enacted it in 1903, followed by Oregon as the first state in 1908, more than 60 percent of American cities and municipalities have adopted a recall process for local officials.
    But as the voters of Portland may find, the recall may be a popular threat, but it is one that is very hard to carry out.
    For example, in the nearly 100 years that California has had the recall (1911), governors were threatened with a recall 31 times before such an effort finally got enough signatures to get on the ballot. And California, despite its size, arguably has the easiest recall law for statewide officials in the nation.
    Portland has a fairly lax recall standard, but it is much tougher than the one that California Gov. Gray Davis famously faced in 2003.
    The biggest hindrance to an Adams recall is a fairly standard rule that a recall may not be initiated against an elected official until six months after the official takes office. This sensible rule is designed to prevent an instant rerun of an election. Of all the statewide recall laws in the country, only California does not impose a time limit on when it can be used. This six-month lag may be Adams’ best hope, that he can ride out the storm as passions cool.
    The other rule that could play a role in an Adams recall is the signature requirement. Failure to gather enough valid signatures is the reason that most recall attempts never get to the ballot. Last year, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was threatened with recall. Like so many others, the threat went nowhere, thanks to the state’s extremely high signature requirement.
    Oregon has an unusual law in that petitioners need to gather 15 percent of the votes cast for governor in the previous election in the city. It is one of the few states, if not the only one, which links the signatures to the governor’s total, almost guaranteed to be a higher number, rather than the votes cast for the office itself.
    Adams may benefit from another Oregon law. Once the recall petitions are taken out, proponents will have only 90 days to gather the required 32,183 signatures. Californians are given 160 days, and some other states allow as much as six months.
    If voter anger toward Adams continues, however, signatures might not be too hard to come by. Once a recall gets on the ballot, chances are good that the official will be ousted. Typically, this may be because voter turnout is dramatically lower in a recall. Unlike a regularly scheduled election, voters have to be both aware of the special election and care enough to actually vote. Those who do are often highly motivated by animus to the elected official.
    Ancillary evidence provides support. For example, only two governors in U.S. history have faced a recall, but both were removed, and 13 of the 20 state legislators who came up for a recall in U.S. history have been kicked out of office, including three in Oregon: Bill Olson of Grants Pass in 1988, Pat Gillis of Portland in 1985 and Harry S. Merriam of Goshen in 1935.
    Why do some people survive recall votes and others get kicked out? Some specific attributes make a recall likely to succeed. Corruption or direct violation of a law tops the list. 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.
    Recalls also are more successful when they are based on a single issue, such as raising taxes, or when an interest group feels betrayed. For example, Wisconsin state Sen. 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. Last year, two prominent elected state legislators faced recalls based around partisan aims, one in California, the other, the speaker of the Michigan House. Both survived the vote. The office of Portland mayor is nonpartisan, so that would likely be a nonfactor if Adams were to face a recall.
    Unfortunately for the new mayor, feelings of betrayal by key interest groups are well in evidence. Perhaps he can take solace in the careers of some early recall pioneers. Seattle’s Mayor Gill was once again elected mayor in 1914. And the first governor removed by a recall, North Dakota’s Lynn Frazier, won a U.S. Senate seat two years after his fall.
    However, more recent recall losers have had a more ominous end to their career. California’s Davis quickly became a punch line. In Washington, Spokane Mayor James West was removed in 2005 after an alleged sex scandal and charges of abuse of office. West, who died a year after the recall, was eventually cleared of criminal charges by the FBI, but not before his reputation and career were finished.
    Adams faces a tough road ahead, with citizens and editorial boards calling for his resignation. For now, he has time — six months until he would face a recall, and even then his opponents would have to start the arduous process of collecting signatures. But if they succeed, he may find out why the recall is fast becoming a feared weapon.
    Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York City. He has written extensively about the recall for a variety of newspapers and magazines.