Menus Subscribe Search
recall-davis

Headlines of Gray Davis' defeat in The Daily Californian. (PHOTO: TIM BERGERON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Recall Is the New Normal

• September 17, 2013 • 12:00 PM

Headlines of Gray Davis' defeat in The Daily Californian. (PHOTO: TIM BERGERON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Welcome to the age of the permanent campaign, where recalls are easy to trigger than ever before and politicians need to worry about not just tomorrow’s war chest, but also today’s.

Last week, in a first for the state of Colorado, two state legislators were recalled by their constituents. Senator Angela Giron (D-Pueblo) and Senate President John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) were sent packing in large part due to their votes in favor of new gun laws passed and signed into law earlier this year.

As I’ve noted elsewhere (here and here), recall elections are a rarity in the United States, but they’re becoming increasingly common. There have only been 38 state legislative recall elections since states first began adopting the procedure in 1908. Seventeen of those—nearly half—have occurred just since 2010. And some of them, particularly the recent Colorado ones, would have to be labeled as political successes for their backers. A vocal and passionate minority (in this case, gun owners) wanted to punish some lawmakers for their votes and send a message of intimidation to others. They did that.

Officeholders in recall states would be wise when casting votes to consider not only how those votes will be perceived in the next election, but how they are perceived today.

My guess is that the recall will only become more popular in the coming years. Now, I remember quite a few people predicting the same thing after the successful 2003 recall of California Governor Gray Davis. In fact, it would be another five years before anyone would attempt to recall a state legislator, and another three years after that until an attempt to unseat another governor. Why would it not catch on then but catch on now?

Well, a few things have changed in the past decade. For one, a lot more states are now under one party control than used to be the case. Forty-three state legislatures are now run by a single party, the highest number since 1944. For another, most state legislative parties have polarized and continue to do so. This combination of factors—single-party rule and more polarized, programmatic parties—creates an environment where being in the minority party is a lot more costly than it used to be. Minority party legislators and voters have fewer ways to slow down or stop legislation they don’t like, and a lot more legislation is coming their way that seems completely hostile to their beliefs.

The recall is a solution. Not for everyone, of course—it’s only on the books in 19 states, but all 19 of them are under single-party rule. And despite what some may wish, recalls are generally not limited to cases of criminal or unethical behavior. Only eight states have specific grounds for allowing recalls, and most of those are fairly vague. For the most part, what makes for a recallable offense is whatever a majority of voters who show up for the election determine it to be.

So given that majority parties are increasingly steering states in directions that minority party members don’t like, and that the recall is a proven method of not only purging a few politicians but getting others to change their behavior, we should expect to see a lot more of them in the near future.

Indeed, as Reid Wilson wrote, this is basically the true establishment of the “permanent campaign.” Officeholders in recall states would be wise when casting votes to consider not only how those votes will be perceived in the next election, but how they are perceived today, since it doesn’t take long to trigger a recall. They’d also be advised to maintain large campaign war chests and to foster ties to national party organizations, interest groups, and major donors who can help them out if they inadvertently wind up the target of a recall campaign. And even if they have four years until the next scheduled election, they should treat every vote they cast as potentially their last.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


Follow us


Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.