Get Rid Of Recall Elections

Recall elections in a hyper-partisan atmosphere are not a good thing.

Jonathan Zimmerman, who describes himself as “a lifelong Democrat and career educator,” has an interesting piece in today’s Los Angeles Times where he  makes an argument against  recall elections, as typified by the effort going on now in Wisconsin to recall Governor Scott Walker and several other elected officials:

As a liberal, I’m troubled by the prospect of voters unseating an elected official over taxes. Or abortion. Or gun control. If you can recall leaders for any political reason, sooner or later your own ox will be gored.

I’m also worried that the Wisconsin recall, which has drawn nationwide attention and money, will trigger a vicious cycle of partisan retribution. Your guy didn’t win in November? No problem. Start a recall drive now.

Most of all, though, I fear that the recall threat will make our elected officials even more timid and poll-tested than they already are. Sometimes, great leaders need to take unpopular positions. And politically motivated recalls make that less likely, as President Taft warned in 1913:

“Look back, my friends, through the history of the United States and recount the number of instances of men who filled important offices and whose greatness is conceded today, and tell me one who … if subjected to a recall at certain times in his official career when criticism had impaired his popularity, would not have been sent into private life with only part of his term completed. Washington is one who would have been recalled, Madison another, Lincoln another.”

I’m not comparing Walker to Washington or Madison or Lincoln. But Wisconsin voters should let him serve out his term, just as Feinstein did three decades ago. “She was guilty of neither crime nor incompetence,” the San Francisco Examiner wrote in 1983 after voters rejected the effort to recall Feinstein. “The people recognize the injustice of it, and the offense to the process of democracy.”

Let’s hope Wisconsinites come to the same wise conclusion, no matter what they think of their governor.

Zimmermann raises the specter of the 2003 Recall Election that unseated Gray Davis as Governor of California, only the second time a sitting Governor had been recalled in American history, as well as an unsuccessful effort by an group of gun control opponents to unseat Dianne Feinstein as Mayor of San Francisco in 1983. As Zimmerman notes, on both occasions, Feinstein made some excellent points against the use of the recall process as a partisan, punitive measure:

“This governor was elected just last November,” Feinstein said in a TV advertisement. “Within three months, this recall effort began. It was started by people who were unhappy with the results of a legitimate election, in which 8 million Californians voted.”

Feinstein herself had been the target of a recall campaign in 1983, when she was mayor of San Francisco. Angered by her support for a strict handgun control measure, a group called the White Panther Party launched a petition drive against her.

But if voters tried to remove everyone they disagreed with, Feinstein responded, no public official could effectively serve anyone. As she argued in the ballot pamphlet for the 1983 recall election: “Orderly government cannot prevail on the shifting sands of a recall brought, not because of any corruption or incompetence, but because of a difference of opinion on an issue.”

Feinstein and Zimmerman have a point here, I think, and they both bring up reasons that I’ve never entirely been a fan of the recall process to begin with. We elect officials to serve specific and set terms of office for a reason, among those reasons are the idea that it takes a certain amount of time for anyone, whether they are a State Legislator, Governor, Member of Congress, or President, to get settled into their role and begin enacting the agenda that they were elected to implement. Obviously, the people who voted against those officials aren’t going to be happy with the policies that they implement, and indeed it is partly the job of the opposition party to stem the power of the majority run roughshod over the will of the minority, though. However, there comes a time when one must recognize that elections mean things and that one has to accept the outcome of an election while preparing for the next one. Additionally, there something to be said for the idea that politicians shouldn’t be guided by poll numbers all the time and that a political system makes politicians more fearful of the partisan recall election would lead to governance by poll results. Most importantly, though I would argue that mere policy disputes shouldn’t be sufficient reason to remove someone from office before their term is up.

State laws and Constitutions all provide for means of removing someone from office who has committed wrongdoing or who is no longer physically or mentally competent to fulfill the duties of their office. In some cases, those laws may need to be beefed up so that citizens are not deprived of their right to representation by the criminal activity or incapacity of their representative, but there seems to me to be something dangerous about a mechanism like the power of recall in the hyperpartisan political atmosphere we live in today.

As Zimmermann points out, the Recall came into being during the Progressive Era in the early part of the 20th Century and advocated by Progressives as a method by which the people can put a check on elected officials on the take from powerful corporate and railroad interests. In the end, recalls ended up being authorized in less than 20 states, most of them states where the Progressive movement was strong in the 1910s and 1920s, and it became a rarely used tool up until roughly the mid-1980s when it seemed to become far more frequently used, and for far more partisan reasons. Depending on how the Walker and other recall’s in Wisconsin turn out in June, we could see it become as frequently used a tool as the filibuster has become in the Senate. Once the partisans on both sides see it can work, its hard to believe that they won’t try to use it far more frequently than they have in the past. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing for our political system.

James Joyner made this point way back in February 2003 when the recall against Gray Davis was just getting started:

[T]his movement strikes me as dangerous. It’s one thing to recall a politician who has committed a crime or some other serious breach while in office; it’s quite another to use it to get a second bite at the apple. Even if unsuccessful, this will cost the state a sizable amount of money and distract the elected officials, especially Davis, from doing the jobs to which they were elected. And, if successful, this will create a dangerous precedent similar to the Senate’s defeat of Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1986. From now on, this will be considered a legitimate tactic for one party to attack a weak politician of the other party. Republicans were rightly upset by New Jersey Democrats for flouting the state’s election laws by swapping a losing candidate for a winner at the 11th hour; they should oppose this flouting of the spirit of California law just as vigorously.

As it turned out, of course, the California recall didn’t open the floodgates as feared, however I think the warnings voiced then, and those that Zimmerman voices now, are well-taken. If anything, our political culture has become even more hyperpartisan than it was nine years ago, meaning that the likelihood we’ll see an increased use of this tool as a partisan bludgeon is higher than it was back then. The one good thing is that recalls are still limited to a small number of states (only nineteen states allow recall of statewide officials, while a slightly larger  number allow it for local officials) so perhaps the impact won’t be as bad as feared. However, that doesn’t mean the dangers don’t exist and that we shouldn’t think twice before “throwing the bums out” before their term of office is up.

Graphic via WTAQ.com

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FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. legion says:

    I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that anyone who starts out their statement with “As a liberal…” isn’t actually speaking as a liberal. In fact, I’d like to expand that to a more general theorem:
    Anybody who starts off with “Speaking as a ‘X’…” is not, in fact, an ‘X’. Corollary: The longer the statement that follows, the more probability approaches 1.0 that the speaker is describing a position directly opposite that of ‘X’.

  2. Hey Norm says:

    Zimmerman does a Doug and portrays the reason for the Wisconsin recall as simply partisan politics that BOTH SIDES DO.
    The Walker recall is not simply about another bite at the apple. Walker pulled major legislation out of his arse…he hadn’t run on it…it had never been talked about in the campaign. He sprung it on the electorate. The electorate is entitled and justified in springing him out of office.

  3. al-Ameda says:

    I find it interesting that now that a Republican Governor (Walker) is subject to a bitter recall election, we now have the suggestion that it might be time to get rid of recall elections.

    As noted above, we had one here in California in 2003. Most interesting was the fun fact that Republican House Rep Darrell Issa provided most of the funding for the drive to recall Governor Gray Davis. Ostensibly, Davis was impeached because of Davis’s mishandling of the state budget deficit and an energy crisis.

    Perhaps it’s because Democrats are usually the subject of the recall elections, and now that a Republican is the subject of a recall – I am finding that I’m not interested in eliminating recall elections.

    Interesting how that works.

  4. Funny, did you read the link from James that I quoted? That was from 2003 when a Democrat was being subjected to a partisan policy-based recall

  5. Al says:

    Davis was an unbelievably unpopular governor that managed to win the election because he was smart enough to bait Republican primary voters to put up ultra conservative Bill Simon instead of Richard Riordan. Simon probably couldn’t have beaten Davis in a general election even if he hadn’t had run a telecom that was ripping off its customers but once that came out it was all over.

    In the end Davis was recalled and we got Schwarzenegger instead. At this point I’m starting to think that Kent was right

  6. al-Ameda says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Yes Doug, I definitely did notice the Zimmerman link.
    I believe that he left out the 1986 recall of 3 justices from the California Supreme Court. As a lifelong Democrat, Zimmerman has to know that Democrats have been subject to recall far more than Republicans, so why he wants to pull the plug on recall elections now that a Republican is the potential victim is somewhat surprising to me.

    He is definitely more tolerant of vituperative conservative opposition to liberal politicians than I am.

  7. G.A. says:

    Walker pulled major legislation out of his arse…he hadn’t run on it…it had never been talked about in the campaign. .

    <——-THAT'S A LIE..

    The electorate is entitled and justified in springing him out of office.

    AND HERE IS ANOTHER CLUE-THE RECALL WAS SPAWNED AS SOON AS HE WON.

    Walker=Winning….lol….

    oh and balance the budget, saving the jobs of teachers,freeing up money for the kids and creating a surplus among many other wonderful things. Like showing the outright voter fraud perpetrated by the neo marxist left into the hundreds of thousands, and the government accountability board and many of fully marxist judges..and on and on, and he is just getting started:)

    haa…

  8. al-Ameda says:

    @G.A.:

    This is the part:

    and many of fully marxist judges..

    where Lenin and Stalin beg to differ with you.

  9. @al-Ameda:

    I was referring to the other link, the one to James Joyner’s 2003 post right here at OTB

  10. al-Ameda says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    Oh okay, now I get it.

  11. KariQ says:

    The thing that I loved about the recall of Grey Davis is that he was trying to manage a disastrous energy policy that was put in place by the Republicans the last time they had control of the state of California. They put in an unworkable deregulation process that was inevitably going to blow up, and did as soon as it started, surprising no one who had thought about for 5 minutes, and giving the entire country a chance to lecture California about how it needed to learn to use less energy and build more power plants and use coal, as if Californians weren’t already among the lowest per capita users of electricity in the country and there wasn’t excess capacity for the demands that were experienced at the time.

    Wait, what were we talking about again? Oh right, recalls.

    Generally, I don’t see the use for them, but there are rare occasions when they are actually a positive good. One area I lived in used recall elections to get rid of a school board that was completely corrupt and put in one that was actually able to do the job they were elected for. Recalls are imperfect tools, but they are so rarely used (and even more rarely successful) that I just don’t think they are worth worrying about.

  12. Hey Norm says:

    GA..
    Please provide a link that proves Walker campaigned on a platform that included ending collective bargaining rights for public sector unions.

  13. G.A. says:

    Please provide a link that proves Walker campaigned on a platform that included ending collective bargaining rights for public sector unions

    He ran on small concessions from the unions to balance the budget to save these idiot union members jobs.Then what Happened? I was here.You read and listen to libtrash…oh and not that I was trying to coddle you bullcrap crap but it is hard to find anything but maniac lib Walker hate sites when you search anything about him.

    So stop lying and be happy he turned my state around and saved many many jobs for your comrades.

    where Lenin and Stalin beg to differ with you.

    lol. yes silly me, there are no Marxist judges in the Madison area…

  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @G.A.: A Link???????? Please??????

    Shorter Doug: Democracy is so messy. Wouldn’t it be easier if we just eliminated elections?

    And yeah, Doug, I realize you believe people should have to live with the results of their votes, but when a serial liar wins? Doohhhhh….. wait a minute….. you are a Romney man.

  15. walt moffett says:

    I like recall elections because the throne should never be a comfortable seat and they are a pressure relief valve when things go the way human things do.

  16. merl says:

    @legion: He’s probably a Fox news “liberal”, like Alan Colmes. And if someone never mentions anything like his agenda to destroy unions during the campaign why not recall them?

  17. merl says:

    @G.A.: Hey, it’s not 1950 anymore. you need to update your scary names.

  18. Stan says:

    @G.A.: I was brought up in Wisconsin and I follow Wisconsin news closely. During the election campaign Scott Walker said that he would be tough with public employee unions. He did not say that he intended to destroy Wisconsin public employee unions until after the election. His proposal to do so came as a complete surprise to everybody except his political allies in the state legislature. His conduct during the campaign was duplicitous, and is exactly the kind of behavior that should be subject to the discipline of a recall election.

  19. Hey Norm says:

    GA can’t back up his smack…or admit he’s wrong.
    Not much needs to be said after that.

  20. jacks says:

    Consent of the governed.
    The process is there because we are guaranteed the right to change our government if it is not meeting our needs. These are supposed to be our representatives, officials who are supposed to be working for us. Not dictators that can do whatever they want regardless of what the voters want.
    The minimum number of signatures on a petition may need to go up; but, this is the right of the people

  21. Loviatar says:

    @Hey Norm:

    After seeing him do it so many times, I suggest we call the “BOTH Sides Do It” meme a Mataconis.

  22. Eric the OTB Lurker says:

    @G.A.:

    Well, I hate to break it to you, GA, but I was here in WI also, and I can tell you that Walker certainly did not campaign on ending public unions. Moreover, to do that on top of cutting funds to education AND giving tax breaks to corporations? Please, cracker.

  23. Gustopher says:

    @G.A.: You lie.

  24. G.A. says:

    @G.A.: A Link???????? Please??????

    A link to what? I told you what he ran on, then the unions told him to fluke himself when it came time to give their fair share. then 14 neo marxist run away, and then the unions got the Karma put on them….

    Hey, it’s not 1950 anymore. you need to update your scary names

    lol, space commies? LOL X Men commies like Obama?

    I was brought up in Wisconsin and I follow Wisconsin news closely. During the election campaign Scott Walker said that he would be tough with public employee unions. He did not say that he intended to destroy Wisconsin public employee unions until after the election. His proposal to do so came as a complete surprise to everybody except his political allies in the state legislature. His conduct during the campaign was duplicitous, and is exactly the kind of behavior that should be subject to the discipline of a recall election.

    Oh so sad no more strong arming the tax payer,no more being forced to join commie organizations,no more have your dues money sent of to the commies, er, democrats with out a vote, no more collecting two or three pensions, well it won’t be easy…

    GA can’t back up his smack…or admit he’s wrong.

    lol Winning….

    Well, I hate to break it to you, GA, but I was here in WI also, and I can tell you that Walker certainly did not campaign on ending public unions. Moreover, to do that on top of cutting funds to education AND giving tax breaks to corporations? Please, cracker.

    Who ended Public Unions? The schools that used his fixes have lots of money, the few that jammed their union contracts through don’t.And jobs are being created, businesses are hiring and GOOD GOD if we did not have this DUMB A$$ RECAL AND ALL THIS LIBERAL TERROISM I think we would doing say a thousand times better!!!!

    Any more MSNBC DAILY KOS talking points you want to go over.

    Oh and why you got to call me a cracker. punk?!?!?!

  25. G.A. says:

    @G.A.: You lie.

    Not a lib don’t need to lie….

  26. G.A. says:
  27. Hey Norm says:

    GA calls me a liar…then can’t back it up…and isn’t man/woman enough to admit it.
    Then he/she says something about Daily Kos talking points…just prior to linking to some HotAir talking points.
    This is a seriously troubled individual.
    Based on the above display all subsequent comments attributed to GA should be required to carry a disclaimer as follows:

    “This commenter has been proven to be a reality challenged, spineless, partisan hack and all comments by said commenter should be considered in that context.”

  28. al-Ameda says:

    @G.A.:

    Not a lib don’t need to lie….

    Of course you don’t “need to”

  29. Stan says:

    @G.A.: The Wisconsin public employees unions said they would accept the cuts in compensation requested by the Walker administration. The demand by Walker that the unions lose their representation rights is the cause of the uproar, not the compensation question. There were repeated articles on this point in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, a backer of Walker during the 2010 election campaign and an opponent of holding a recall election.

    I think you’re misinformed on this point. Or you’re lying.

  30. Tillman says:

    The problem I have with talk about ending the recall election is this weird sentiment among many I talk with that someone who is elected is elected and therefore able to do whatever the hell they want, since they were elected (did I mention they were elected?). As if the election is the be-all and end-all of legitimacy in a democracy. After an election, fuck, we have a tyrant until the next election. Don’t like it? Well, you should have voted.

    Now there is something to be said about fair weather voters and horrible turnout in our representative democracy, and something to be said about the duplicity of those seeking office through election, and something to be said about voting and complaining, and blah blah.

    Make recalls require more signatures, problem solved.

    Also, the recall election in Wisconsin? That’s your model for “recall elections taken too far?” Have you been paying any attention to what Walker was doing?

  31. G.A. says:

    GA calls me a liar…then can’t back it up…and isn’t man/woman enough to admit it.

    I backed it and you are.

    The Wisconsin public employees unions said they would accept the cuts in compensation requested by the Walker administration.

    wrong.

    The demand by Walker that the unions lose their representation rights is the cause of the uproar, not the compensation question.

    wrong.

    There were repeated articles on this point in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, a backer of Walker during the 2010 election campaign and an opponent of holding a recall election.

    man I don’t have the time to go into MJS.

    I’ll tell you again that the recall started when he won.And the protest kicked into high gear when he asked for a tiny little fair share for the union workers to pay on their own benefits.

    “This commenter has been proven to be a reality challenged, spineless, partisan hack and all comments by said commenter should be considered in that context.”

    lol…..Do you need my address again so you can come get Billy bada$$?lol…Im a partasin hack?..well..I sure do act like one in your mind…

    Of course you don’t “need to”

    lol, you want me to start I know…. But I like being an individual and not a lib anymore.

    Do I explain to them that I could show them a video of Obama shooting Lincoln and it would have no effect on the brain washing?(H/T B.Goldberg) Or that I don’t care how they perceive my word out of mouth argument from my own brain?Or that I put up that link to pi$$ them off and send them into a Rules rage?

    lol na…

    So then, how is every one doing and how has the day treated you:)?

  32. Stan says:

    @G.A.: I’m not sure if you understand the concept of objective truth. Maybe you should read 1984.

  33. G.A. says:

    I’m not sure if you understand the concept of objective truth. Maybe you should read 1984.

    Sure I do “what ever a liberal reads or here form another liberal is the the only real truth no matter what anyone else says or thinks”.Unlike absolute truth, which is when a group of liberals gets together and says “ya lets run with what we all agree makes us feel good and important”.

    like I have stated before I only listen to like half a days worth of Wisconsin talk radio have countless streams of Wisconsin news feed into my face book and live here and play close attention so what would I know.

  34. James Joyner says:

    @Tillman: My view is that we have a system of fixed terms for political office. In the case of Walker, I’ve actually condemned his ramming through radical policies that he didn’t campaign on. Still, he got them through the elected legislature. The remedy is to vote the bums out the next go-round.

    The problem with recalls–again, excepting cases of actual crimes being committed–is that it potentially means perpetual elections. Especially in the case of close contests, what’s to prevent the losing side from staging a recall to get a second bite at first opportunity?

  35. merl says:

    If you caught your employee working for the competition on your dime, would you fire him? That’s what a recall election is.