Recall elections surge in local and state governments

June 22, 2011

By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times

The new president of Arizona’s state Senate, Russell Pearce, had only 21 days to enjoy that position before opponents began circulating petitions in January to recall the freshly reelected conservative.

That’s more time than Jim Suttle had. The night the Democrat was elected mayor of Omaha in 2009, backers of his rivals began to talk online about trying to remove him from office. Suttle barely survived a recall election in January.

Once a political rarity, recall elections are surging in local and state governments.

The number of mayors who faced recalls doubled in 2010 from the previous year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors said. Anti-tax activists even tried to recall two Democratic U.S. senators last year, only to be shot down by courts, which noted that there are no provisions for recalls in federal law.

Joshua Spivak, who studies recalls and blogs about them at, said there had been only 20 attempted recalls of state legislators in U.S. history. This year, 10 are already on the ballot. Much of that is because of an unprecedented outbreak of recalls in Wisconsin, where the newly elected Republican governor’s proposal to limit the power of unions led to recalls against six Republican state senators who voted for the bill, and three Democrats who left the state to try to stop its passage.

Spivak said he thought recall attempts could increase along the lines of their electoral sibling, ballot initiatives, which once were rare but since the 1970s have been a fixture on election day. Recalls may end up the same way, he said.

“It is growing and it is something that people are seeing as a valuable tool against elected officials,” he said, noting that more states are permitting recalls and that even Australia and England might follow suit. “People want more checks on their elected officials.”

That worries some who contend that the constant threat of recalls makes it impossible to govern.

“It’s just not good government to have an election every month,” said Tom Cochran, executive director of the mayors conference.

Voter disgust with politics, which often peaks during times of economic turmoil, is fueling some of the increase, analysts say.

Most recalls are triggered if proponents collect signatures equivalent to a percentage of total votes in the prior election. With election turnout shrinking in many places, it is easier than ever to place a recall on the ballot. In Akron, Ohio, only 3,200 signatures were needed to trigger an attempt to recall the mayor in 2009. It failed by a 3-1 margin.

Technological innovations — and the polarizing nature of the Web and social media — also are factors, said Christian Schneider, a senior fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.

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