Recall expert: Join the club, Cd'A

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Joshua Spivak

With the approval of the recall of Mayor Sandi Bloem and three city council members, Coeur d’Alene would be set to face a potentially divisive electoral fight. For Cd’A residents, this may be a new and unpleasant experience. But a look around the country shows that Cd’A is joining a long and growing list of jurisdictions looking to pull what William Howard Taft called the hair trigger form of government.

Last year, 151 elected officials in the U.S. either faced a recall vote or resigned before the election. Thirty of those recalls were against mayors. This year, there have already been 103 scheduled, including the ground-shaking ones against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, his lieutenant governor and four state senators.

There’s a strong tactical reason to use the recall — it works. As with most special elections, voter turnout for recalls is generally lower and the more motivated party — i.e. the recall proponents — appear to have an advantage. Of the 151 recalls that took place last year, 85 resulted in the official being ousted or resigning. This more than 50 percent number is doubly striking when you realize that officials facing re-election (an admittedly self-selecting group) are likely to win between 75-85 percent of the time.

One big question to ask is why do some people survive recall votes and others get kicked out? Some specific attributes make a recall likely to succeed. Corruption or direct violation of a law tops the list. Most politicians who face a recall under charges of corruption end up losing, such as the first two mayors recalled in this country, Los Angeles’ A.C. Harper in 1909 and Seattle’s Hiram Gill in 1911.

But voters should not be fooled into thinking that corruption is the primary reason for recall use. Pundits and politicians have claimed that Walker’s successful defense was due to voter unwillingness to use the recall for anything but corruption or malfeasance. The facts simply don’t back up this assertion. People have cited exit polls showing that 60 percent of voters think the recall should be limited to corruption/malfeasance and 10 percent think there should be no recall at all. I’m no mathematician, but this statistic clashes very heavily with the fact that nearly 47 percent of voters cast their ballots to oust Walker. And of the 53 percent who voted to retain Walker, you could be sure that a very large percentage of them would have voted to kick out a Democrat in the same boat. The reality is that very few recalls are based on corruption issues, but it doesn’t stop voters from using the device. In fact, on the same day Walker survived, one of his Republican state senators was ousted in a recall — and that legislative loss flipped the Senate Democratic control.

So what are the other reasons for the recall? While a number are for strikingly personal reasons — including appointments of relatives and girlfriends to positions — most are based on political or policy grounds. Policy issues are probably the second popular reason for a successful recall — but those are usually based on a single issue, such as raising taxes or excess spending, and frequently tied into an argument that the elected official betrayed voters. The only two Idaho state legislators to be removed by recall, state Senator Fisher Ellsworth and Assemblyman Alden Hyde, were voted out because they voted for a pay raise.

Perception of the motives for the recall is critical. Perhaps surprisingly, partisan recall attempts are not wholly rejected — they have a mixed record of success. But recalls that are perceived to be launched by a special interest group are the least likely to succeed. Wisconsin gubernatorial recall is a perfect example of this problem. By tying the recall to one special interest group — the public sector unions — Scott Walker was able to beat back the recall. Many other interest group recalls have failed for the same reason.

One certain issue that will be brought up is the cost of the recall. Every single official facing a recall tries to use the perceived waste of money of the recall as a weapon to bludgeon their opponents. It sometimes helps — it may have been a difference-maker in an Omaha mayoral recall last year — but generally it is at best a secondary issue. Voters generally don’t respond to it. If they dislike the official, they will vote them out.

If there’s a CdA recall election, there will be a strong effort to spin the motives behind the recall. This may seem to be a minor part of the debate, but in reality it could be critical for the success or failure of the recall.

Joshua Spivak is a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College. He writes the Recall Elections Blog.

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