When we compile some sort of top ten political stories for the 2011-2012 election cycle, each of these “R’s” will likely occupy several slots on the list. Reapportionment and the rapidly changing demographics of cities/rural areas/states/regions will have a tremendous impact on policy and elections in the future. Redistricting comes at a time when voters are more upset with the selfishness and partisanship of elected bodies that will be undertaking the most self-centered act of all in any ten-year period. The storylines on the referendums and recounts have not played out yet, but there are plenty of early indicators that those subjects will be major stories this cycle too. That leaves us with the one “R’ I want to focus on right now – recall elections
One of those slots on that top ten political stories list will certainly be Wisconsin and their divisive Supreme Court election from last week and the possible recount that will follow. The energizing of grassroots networks around the country in key states will have its origins in this election battle and the many impending recall elections fought in Wisconsin as a result of the labor union issue debates at the statehouse.
With the recent and ongoing events in Wisconsin, we very well may be looking at engaging in two simultaneous election cycles. One that is the traditional two-year cycle that culminates on the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November of the even numbered year. The second cycle being an ongoing effort to redo the last election or issue fight via recall and referendum elections.
While not exactly new, it appears the use of recall elections (a procedure, usually by signature petition, that allows voters to remove a public official from office prior to serving their full term) is going to be used with increased frequency in an era where elected officials find it more difficult by the day to effectively govern. While, according to recall election researcher and Wagner College’s Joshua Spivak, recall elections appeared in Colonial America and were debated at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the first statute was passed at the local level by Los Angeles, CA in 1903 and at the state level by Oregon in 1908. The Oregon effort was spearheaded by a Progressive originally from Wisconsin, former Populist Party State Representative William S. U’Ren. U’Ren organized the labor unions, the Farmer’s Alliance, the editor of the Portland Oregonian and others to put the issue before voters as a referendum.
The upcoming Wisconsin Senate recall elections will go down as the biggest recall election in the U.S. since California Governor Grey Davis was recalled/defeated by Arnold Schwarzenegger in October 2003. While none of them ever resulted in a recall election being held, Schwarzenegger faced seven recall election attempts while governor. The only other recall of a statewide elected official was in North Dakota in 1921 when the Governor, Attorney General and the Commissioner of Agriculture were all recalled. Two years later the recalled Governor, Lynn Frazier, was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Millions of dollars, from multiple fronts, was spent on the Wisconsin contest with more to come over the next couple of months as nineteen different campaign committees have filed recall efforts against sixteen different members of the Wisconsin Senate (eight Republican/eight Democratic). Wisconsin state law does not allow for recall of a Governor until they have served one year and you can bet that next January Governor Scott Walker will be facing a well-funded recall attempt.
With so much volatility in American politics over the last year (Republicans gained control of 22 legislative chambers plus the U.S. House) and continued economic difficulties, the American public and organizations with their backs against the wall are more than willing to explore alternatives to solve problems to passing legislation and putting into office those who will support their viewpoint – or remove those who oppose their cause. This means recall elections, court challenges, and referendums. Recall and referendum elections have created an unpredictable and never-ending election cycle. If one side doesn’t like the outcome of an election, fight for a “do over.” If you don’t like the result in the legislature, go to an issue referendum to go around the legislature or go to court to seek your desired outcome. This appears to be the new way to play the game and, over time, will likely continue to erode the public’s confidence in the electoral process.
Currently, nineteen states (AK, AZ, CA, CO, GA, ID, IL, KS, LA, MI, MN, MO, NV, NJ, ND, OR, RI, WA, WI) plus the District of Columbia have the ability to remove state officials via a recall process. Virginia’s recall process results in a recall trail with a circuit court deciding the outcome. In every other state, a recall election by voters is conducted. Illinois allows recall elections only for Governor. While unlikely to be allowed and thrown out by a federal court, New Jersey and Wisconsin law permit the recall of Congressman. Many other states also have also allowed for the recall of local officials.
Why Wisconsin? The Wisconsin GOP had arguably the best November and December to close out 2010 of any state party. In the November Election, they won control back in the State Assembly (House of Representatives), the State Senate, the Governor’s office, two seats in the U.S. House and a U.S. Senate seat. Following the elections, Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus was elected as the Chairman of the Republican National Committee and Rep. Paul Ryan was tapped to be the Chairman of the House Budget Committee. With all of the electoral success and a contentious legislative session focused on labor issues, Wisconsin became target #1.
Who’s next? The Wisconsin story will not be a one-and-done story this year. Efforts are already under way in several states either to gather signatures for recall elections or to allow recall elections. There are efforts well under way in the battleground state of Ohio, which currently does not have recall elections, for a referendum that would allow for recall elections. Do you think Ohio Governor John Kasich has called Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker about recall elections?
Find out who is on the recall election clock in part 2. I will provide an informative map and highlight several other states that should anticipate strong discussion, activity and even a recall election in the near future.
Data from Joshua Spivak, Senior Fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform of Wagner College, National Conference of State Legislatures, and Wikipedia was used to compile this story.