April 14, 2021

Do You Recall?

By Stephen Tuttle | March 13, 2021

Recall elections, or at least the threat of them, are suddenly all the rage. We'll recall Republicans who supported the Donald Trump impeachment and recall Democrats who initiated pandemic-related restrictions. Almost none will succeed.   

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom has been the target of five recall efforts, and the current permutation, unlike the others, has a chance to make the ballot. The reasons for the recall, as stated in the language on the recall petitions, are high taxes, California's seemingly intractable homeless crisis, lax response to illegal immigration, and Newsom's opposition to the death penalty.   

The recall team must submit slightly more than 1.4 million valid signatures prior to March 17 to make it to the ballot. If successful, Californians will then have a special election with a two-part ballot asking voters if Newsom should be recalled and which of the many candidates on the ballot should replace him. 

(When Gray Davis was successfully recalled in 2003, there were 135 candidates on the ballot, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who won.) 

The debate over Newsom's future has drifted a bit from the petition language. What started as a collection of business interests and conservatives anxious to be rid of him has expanded to include those opposed to his pandemic orders closing schools and small businesses, as well as a poor vaccine rollout.

There is nothing especially unusual about this in California; there have been 55 recall efforts since 1913. In fact, all but two governors in that time have at least been threatened with a recall, but only one, ousting Gray Davis, was successful. Only three times in the country's history has the recall of a governor even made the ballot: in North Dakota in 1921, the Davis recall, and an unsuccessful, more recent effort to oust Scott Walker in Wisconsin. 

The 20 states allowing recalls, including Michigan, have made those efforts challenging, requiring massive signature gathering in short windows, with an equally short time to organize and carry out a campaign. There is a good reason for both the difficulty getting on the ballot — less than 5 percent of recall efforts get that far — and the lack of success for those that do — less than 10 percent succeed in ousting the recall target. 

That reason is we have regularly scheduled elections already. Voters prefer to punish political rascals at the regularly scheduled time rather than bother with special elections. Gov. Newsom, for example, must run for reelection next year, anyway, and a special statewide election in California might cost as much as $80 million. Political decisions and policy choices aren't usually considered sufficiently egregious to warrant a recall.

We've had our own wave of attempted recalls in Michigan.

Former state Rep. Larry Inman was the target of one such effort, as were several members of the Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) board. None made the ballot.  

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could be the recall champion or at least the current leader. At one point she was the target of 20 separate such efforts, most of which pointed to her executive orders, since ruled unconstitutional, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Michigan recall petitions must be created with language justifying the recall, they must then be submitted to the Board of State Canvassers for “clarity and factuality.” Once approved, the petition gatherers have 60 days to collect more than a million valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. 

In 2012, the form of recall elections in Michigan was changed from the two-part California system to a single choice: Now the targeted incumbent is automatically on the ballot versus all opponents. A vote for anyone other than the recall target is a presumptive affirmative vote to recall. 

Of the 20 efforts against Whitmer, nine did not even qualify to circulate petitions, and the other 11 did not or have not acquired sufficient signatures.   

Despite growing opposition to Newsom, it's not likely a governor who received nearly 62 percent of the vote during the last election in a deep blue state and must run again in 2022 will be recalled. However, there is significant angst in California regarding multiple issues, and it appears the recall effort might submit sufficient signatures to get on the ballot. Opponents are already lining up.

Whitmer was not such a dominant winner in 2018, securing less than 53 percent of the vote. The recall efforts against her have been both poorly organized and financed, and a majority of the state still approves her handling of the pandemic, though that support is shrinking.

Regardless, recall is an expensive and poor option, except in cases of the most onerous behavior. Whitmer's detractors can loudly state their case to the voters next year. We don't really need another divisive election in the meantime.   



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