Voters in 19 states have the option of recalling state-level elected officials, but have not often exercised that option throughout most of American history. (Recall is available for local officials in at least 29 states, and is used much more frequently at the local level.) In all of American history, just twenty efforts to recall state legislators have gathered enough signatures to trigger a recall election. Thirteen of those 20 elections resulted in the successful recall of a legislator. Rarely do voters succeed in recalling multiple legislators in the same election:
- In 1914 in California, there were two recall elections for legislators. One was recalled; the other survived the recall election.
- In 1971 in Idaho, there were two recall elections; both legislators were successfully recalled.
- In 1983, two Michigan legislators were recalled. The two recalled senators were Democrats, and when special elections were held to fill their seats, they were won by Republicans, turning control of the Senate over to Republicans where it has remained ever since.
- Three recall elections for legislators were held on different dates in California in 1995. Two of the three efforts were successful in recalling a legislator.
And that's it. A state has never held recall elections for more than two legislators on a single date, and never more than three in a single year.
Viewed in this historical light, it's easy to see why what's happening in Wisconsin this year is unique. Recall elections will be held for at least six state senators on July 12, and there may be three more a week later (the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board has until tomorrow to decide on the merits of the remaining three petitions).
And it's not just Wisconsin. In Arizona, a committee to recall Senate President Russell Pearce submitted petitions to the Secretary of State last week. The Secretary of State's office has completed an initial review of the 18,000+ signatures that were submitted, and the petitions are now in the hands of the Maricopa County Clerk for verification. The county has until late July to complete the verification process, and then the secretary of state has 15 days to call an election. If it is determined that there are sufficient valid signatures (7,756 are required) and both offices use the maximum amount of time available for exercising their duties, the election would likely be held next March. If they are able to complete their duties ahead of deadlines, an election could be held this November. This would be the first recall election held in the state of Arizona. In 1988 Arizona voters submitted enough valid signatures to trigger a recall against then-Governor Evan Mecham, but he was impeached by the state's House of Representatives the day before the scheduled recall election.
Recalls are brewing in Michigan as well. Petitions have been filed to recall at least ten legislators, including the presiding officers of both chambers, and Governor Rick Snyder. Not all of the petitions have been approved for circulation yet, with many being filed in just the past week.
The recall is a political tool, and in many states, no specific grounds are required to initiate a recall campaign. In Wisconsin, Democrats seeking to recall Republicans are angry over votes on labor issues, while Republicans want to recall Democrats for leaving the state to delay a vote on the labor issue. In Arizona, the fight is over immigration. In Michigan, it has to do with taxes, labor issues, and a controversial new law allowing the state to appoint emergency managers for cities and schools.
Is this the new reality? Will legislators now live with the threat of recall for casting an unpopular vote? It's unlikely to last much later than early 2012. So far, six recall elections are scheduled, with all of the remaining recall efforts still somewhere in the petition process. Even if all three of the states currently under the recall cloud ultimately hold recall elections, those would be over by early 2012. Political activists and organizers will surely be focusing their energy and finances on the 2012 elections by then, and it is doubtful that this surge of recalls will live on into the summer of 2012.
If a significant portion of the recalls held this summer in Wisconsin are successful (removing three of the six Republicans facing recall and replacing them with Democrats would move control of the state senate from Republicans to Democrats), that could maintain the energy that recall proponents have generated there for long enough to initiate a recall against the governor. Democrats have promised to do that, and cannot begin gathering the roughly half million signatures required until November 2012. If the recalls against Wisconsin legislators fizzle this summer, it's unlikely that Governor Walker will face a recall election next year.
What really remains to be seen is what happens in 2013. Will 2012's newly elected policymakers draw enough voter ire to spark another recall summer? Will the recall follow the same path as its cousin, the initiative process, followed in the 1980s and 1990s, rising from the obscurity of state constitutions to dominate elections and policy in some states? That's a good question, and one that it is too soon to answer.