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State might be wise to reexamine its recall law

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Todd A. Berry
June 1, 2012
— A prominent political scientist recently observed that “Wisconsin is a state in turmoil.”

Sadly, many objective observers of state politics from around the nation concur with University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato.


It’s easy to see why.


By summer, Wisconsin will have attempted to recall 15 state officials in a year. The number and frequency of these elections, the money spent, and the toxic rhetoric are all unprecedented in state and American history.


In this polarized environment, Wisconsin cannot have a civil discussion about how to restore stability to state government. But, eventually, we will have to consider how to end the destructive cycle of recall elections.


When that day comes, it will help to know how Wisconsin compares to other states.


The recall emerged during the Progressive era of the early 1900s. Along with referendum and initiative, it was part of a trio of tools promoting direct democracy and was partly a response to corruption.


Wisconsin narrowly authorized (50.6 percent) recall elections by constitutional amendment in 1926. Currently, 19 states permit recalling at least some state officials.


But actual state recall elections are even more rare. Only North Dakota (1921) and California (2003) have recalled a governor. Just six states have recalled a state lawmaker.


During the first 98 years of legislative recalls (1913-2010), 21 elections were held in six states. Fifteen were successful, including two in Wisconsin: Sen. George Petak, R-Racine, in 1996 and Sen. Gary George, D-Milwaukee, in 2003.


But in the past two years, 15 state lawmakers have faced recall with 13 in Wisconsin. That’s 36 legislative recalls in 100 years, with 17 in the Badger State alone.


The most important difference among states is the grounds for recall. There is no restriction in 11 states, including Wisconsin. Five require statements of reasons.


The remaining eight states limit recall to some form of wrongdoing, typically serious malfeasance or conviction of a serious crime. Some states also include corruption, unethical behavior, incompetence, or misdemeanor conviction.


In addition, Minnesota and Georgia require judicial review to verify the reasons for recall.


Recall procedures also vary. The time for circulating petitions generally falls in the 60- (Wisconsin) to 180-day range. Needed signatures range from 12 percent of votes cast to 40 percent of eligible voters in the last election the official faced.


In addition, states differ in when they allow recalls. Some prohibit them early or late in an incumbent’s term. Wisconsin does both, although our window is wider. How often incumbents may be recalled also varies—from no limit, to once per term, to only once if the recall fails (unless election expenses are paid).


Clearly, there are many ways to reform or conduct recalls. When the current political “food fight” is over, perhaps Wisconsin can calmly reexamine if, when, and how to recall public officials.


We need that discussion if Wisconsin is to move beyond partisan gridlock and once again be viewed as a state to emulate.


Todd A. Berry is president of the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, 401 N. Lawn Ave., Madison, WI 53704-5033; website www.wistax.org; phone (608) 241.9789; email wistax@wistax.org. The alliance is an 80-year-old nonprofit group dedicated to government research and citizen education. It is not connected to any state or national groups and takes no government money.

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