Recall Elections

The recent recall election in Colorado unseated two Democratic lawmakers who had voted for moderate state gun control measures, chilling the climate for gun control there and arguably nationwide.  How do recall elections work, and how could increasing use of recalls affect politics?

The states have different laws regarding whether and how recalls are allowed.  Most states do not authorize recall elections, while nineteen states do.  In Colorado, along with California, a petition to recall an officeholder that gathers enough valid signatures triggers a recall election with a two-part ballot.  Part 1 asks if the officeholder should be removed from office, and Part 2 contains a choice of candidates to replace them.  All voters may mark Part 2 no matter how they vote in Part 1.  However, the incumbent officeholder may not appear on Part 2.

These rules lead to the possibility that more people want the current officeholder than who want the winner of the recall.  For example, in the well-known recall of Gray Davis as California Governor in 2003, there were 45% for keeping Davis in Part 1 and 49% for electing Arnold Schwarzenegger in Part 2.  If those numbers were reversed, which is certainly plausible, then Schwarzenegger would still have won, but with fewer votes than Davis.

In Arizona, Nevada, North Dakota and Wisconsin, the successful recall petition triggers what is essentially a special election with a single question: who do you vote for for the office?  In these states, the incumbent can be on the list of candidates.  In this case, the incumbent probably has an advantage, because they normally would have greater name recognition and party backing than the other candidates.  But the system is fair in that it doesn’t discriminate against the incumbent.

In another thirteen states, the recall election is a single yes or no question about whether the candidate should be removed.  In nine of those, a yes result leads to a second election to choose the successor, while in the other four, the governor appoints the successor.  (And if the governor is the one recalled, I don’t know what happens, though it’s probable that normal state succession rules apply meaning in most cases that the lieutenant governor takes over.)

What’s the effect of recall elections?  In general, it means that politicians will have to be that much more careful to watch their poll numbers.  If at any time they enjoy less than 50% approval, they could be in danger of recall.  But in particular, in California and Colorado where the incumbent is at a significant disadvantage, recalls introduce an inherent instability in the democratic process.  In any close race, there is a temptation for the loser to start a recall campaign immediately upon the winner taking office.  As turnouts are usually lower for special elections, the results would often be different from the regular election, making a good chance the loser would be elected the second time, especially as he could be elected with a mere plurality of the vote, while the incumbent winner would need a majority to stay in office.

Another effect of recall elections may be to reduce the importance of party politics.  The special election usually does not involve a primary, so all candidates run against one another in one large pool of candidates.  In the California recall, one major Democratic candidate ran against two major Republican ones as well as a Green Party candidate and several candidates from fringe parties or no party affiliation.  It has been said that the moderate Republican Schwarzenegger could not have won the Republican or Democratic primaries and therefore could not have been elected in a regular election.

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