By Karen Shanton
Both of the Colorado state lawmakers facing recall lost their seats on Tuesday. As followers of this story are aware, the recall efforts were politically motivated. Senate President John Morse and Senator Angela Giron, both Democrats, were targeted over their votes for gun contro
Though some states reserve recall power for reining in incompetent or unethical officials, few recalls are actually launched over misconduct – at least not at the state legislative level. Rather, like the Colorado recalls, most are political. Thirty-eight state lawmakers have faced recall elections since the first states, Michigan and Oregon, adopted the recall in 1908. Of those 38 recall efforts, 35 were politically motivated.
(An interesting exception to the general trend of political recalls is recall pioneer, Oregon, where two of the state’s three legislative recalls were over misconduct.)
Politically-motivated recall efforts face an obstacle that misconduct-driven recalls don’t: the (often-not-insignificant) segment of the population that opposes using recalls for political purposes.
This is not a trivial obstacle. It may have been a factor in the wave of state senate recalls in Wisconsin in 2011 and 2012. Exit polling from the 2012 elections, which also included attempts to unseat the governor and lieutenant governor, suggested that 60% of recall election voters opposed deploying recalls for anything other than misconduct. And a correspondingly high proportion of the targeted senators – nine of 13 – survived their recalls.
But it’s also clearly not insurmountable. Counting the Colorado elections, political recalls have succeeded on 18 out of 35 tries. That may not be the perfect three-for-three that misconduct recalls have notched but it’s still (slightly) north of 50-50.
Karen Shanton is a legislative studies specialist at NCSL and a public fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies.