Why the state legislative recall campaign might work

Los Angeles, Calif.

MAY 13, 2009
    California’s budget has incited a quick and powerful reaction from the Republican base. The six Republican state legislators who voted for the budget have already been targeted for recall votes, with several already facing a signature-gathering effort.
    While these officials are not yet in danger, they have good reason to be concerned. Unlike many other recalls threats, their opponents have issues that can turn their base against them.
    As history shows, recalls are most likely successful when there is either a single issue to rally around, such as tax hikes, or when voters feel politicians betrayed their party. Both of these are operative in the state legislative recalls, as there are tax hikes and, with the exception of the governor, the Republican Party has strongly opposed the budget plan.
    A look at California's use of the recall against state level officials tells the tale. 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 California officials have faced recall votes. Three of the officials were kicked out of office. One, of course, was Gov. Gray Davis. The other two were Republican Assembly members who defied their party in 1995 to support Democrats in a speaker fight.
    The stories of the three recall survivors are just as revealing. One was Senate President Pro Tempore David Roberti who was targeted in 1994 as a test case by anti-gun-control forces to warn legislators against supporting gun-control legislation. The second recall was part of the same fight that led to the removal of two Republican Assembly members. The Republicans decided to go on the offensive and try and pick off a Democratic seat, in this case Assemblyman Michael Machado. Machado easily survived.
    The third instance is much more recent. Last year, state Sen. Jeffrey Denham survived a recall. Denham's recall was launched with strong backing from the Senate Democrats, ostensibly because he voted against the budget.
    However, as the Democratic leadership well knew, if the Republican Denham was thrown out of office and replaced by a Democrat, the Democrats would then gain a veto-proof two-thirds majority in the Senate, a strong disincentive to support the recall for voters in the Republican majority district.
    In all three of these failed recalls, the nakedly political motives bolstered the sitting official's case to voters. They were able to portray the recall proponents as trying to overturn the will of the people for partisan or interest group gain. The current budget-focused recalls are different. Republican voters are targeting Republican legislators.
    The Republican base attacking the sitting legislators ties into a separate problem for the elected officials, one that makes recalls particularly effective - lower voter turnout. Generally, recalls votes are stand-alone elections and 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 the three 1995 California Assembly recalls, from 25 to 35 percent of registered voters cast ballots, well below the turnout for a general election.
    Proving the point from the opposite direction, Denham's recall actually took place on the same day as the primary, thereby heavily increasing turnout and limiting the probability of success of the recall. When an interest group is confident that its members will go to the polls, they can use this lower turnout to their advantage.
    Recalls, especially against state officials, are a rarity. The Republican budget supporters may not be kicked out of office. But as history shows, they have reason to worry.
    Joshua Spivak, a public relations executive and attorney, is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College.